To Iain McCaig, "Star Wars" characters are more than just imagination

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 29, 2008 

About half-way through reading "Shadowline: The Art of Iain McCaig" you realize well-known "Star Wars" artist Iain McCaig is having too much fun.

That's because McCaig, who worked on the first three movies of the "Star Wars" saga as a conceptual artist as well as "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," treats his first book as a romp through his imagination rather than a traditional "art of" book.

For him the Shadowline is "a real place. It's the name of that state I get into when I start to draw. I suspect it's the same place where most of us go when we create."

In a McClatchy interview, he elaborated on the difference between art and his experience as an artist. "Whenever anybody introduces an artist they care about — it's all about the paintbrush moving! It's all about the furrowed brow!

"Really for me it's about that quiet battle that goes on inside when you come up over the horizon line and suddenly there's this horde of deadlines coming towards you."

Born in California, where his father gave him the Scottish spelling of "Iain," he started out to be "a writer, not an artist." He studied art at Glasgow School of Art at "the old Charles Rennie Mackintosh building" and lived in Europe for 17 years, making friends with noted fantasy artists Brian Froud and Alan Lee, and doing book and record covers for Jethro Tull's "Broadsword and the Beast" and the 1984's "Irish Folk and Fairy Tales."

His subsequent work for the movie industry included Lucasfilm, where he did many drawings including conceptualizing the demonically evil Sith for "Episode I, The Phantom Menace" for filmmaker George Lucas.

"George used to come up and say 'There's a new Sith lord. Darth Maul.' And he'd walk away."

McCaig recalled he would sit back and think, "Right ... a Sith lord. What's a Sith lord? Anyway, you come up with your vision of a Sith lord, your vision of something with that name."

When he presented his first idea, a "corpse-like face" with bloody rivulets of hair, Lucas slammed shut the folder "with a shudder, (and) asked me for my second worst nightmare."

He worked for Lucas for eight years and "really enjoyed" it.

Other films he's been involved with include "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and the Columbia Pictures 2003's "Peter Pan." He's also designed for videogames and television.

He compares working for others with poetry. "Take the restrictions of what other people want as your meter and your rhyme and when you're writing the poem, you're wild and crazy within that. I never satisfy the meter and the rhyme – I try to satisfy my delight in a poem."

McCaig says "Shadowline" was an "excuse to go through the creative book process" something that he admits, in his acknowledgements, was more difficult than he expected.

He tells the story of "Shadowline" through the narrator, Byron, who is "the innocent idea. Then you take your good idea, step into the battleground _ you don't realize how much work or how many unanswered problems there are. How many heroic things you're going to need to make that thing work."

McCaig anthropomorphized his inner critic as Jones, a pygmy Tyrannosaurus Rex, chewing on a cigar, who "shows up all the time, (saying) 'Hey, you think you can draw? You idiot!'"

For McCaig the greatest evils are deadlines drawn as "bonelike, bat-winged and bandsaw-tailed," which constantly have to be swatted, blown up, or crushed.

He says when facing deadlines, "you're hoping the muse will arise and you just pick up your pencil and just charge into battle and halfway through the (deadline) battle this giant beautiful winged thing, this creative (idea goes) flying over, and flies right past."

But if you feel like skipping "Shadowline's" plot, there are many other sketches and paintings to enjoy. Of these, McCaig is especially fond of Rainmaker Animation's "Pied Piper."

"This is my version of the Pied Piper," he explained. "It's from the rats' point-of-view. From their point of view, he's the biggest serial killer that ever lived. He's dark, he's sinister, he's Clint Eastwood in medieval outfit and a hat and he's come into kill them." So the rats commission someone to kill the Piper.

He adds, "One day this film will get made so I don't want to say everything about it but it was fun doing it from the rats' point of view."

McCaig lives in Victoria, British Columbia, with his wife, Leonor. He has a daughter, Mishi, and son, Inigo, both of whom are artists.

Currently, McCaig's working on the latest film version of "John Carter of Mars" at Pixar Animation Studios. "It will be the fourth time of coming up with a brand new look at the same story," McCaig said. "I came back and worked on 'John Carter' because it's a cursed film and I want to break the curse."

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"Shadowline: The Art of Iain McCaig," by Iain McCaig; Insight Editions, San Rafael, California (240 pages, $65.00)

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