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Ripley – A Portrait

In 2014, the cast of the 1986 film, Aliens reunited at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo. There were autograph signings, photo ops, and a stand-alone event one night where the cast was interviewed, and shared stories in front of an audience of thousands.

Because I was working at my booth, selling my funny looking animal prints, I missed it.

For one reason or another, sci-fi and fantasy movie fans have one favorite franchise.

For some it’s Star Wars, others it’s Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, the Marvel Universe and many others. While I can take or leave the Lord of the Rings, I enjoy those others and have seen them multiple times. Then again, I’ve seen all of the Scorsese’s stuff multiple times, too.

I just love movies.

Even though television writing has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years, and I’ve got many shows I like, I’d choose movies over TV every day of the week.

I’ve been a fan of the Alien movie franchise for most of my life, although I can’t remember when I first saw the original movies but I know it wasn’t in a theatre. I do know that the gateway movie for me, however, was James Cameron’s Aliens.

Over the years, I’ve owned the box sets in multiple formats and have watched them often. I own all six on Blu-Ray and digital and enjoy each movie on its own and as part of the whole. I could rate them in order of preference, but I’m not a militant fan-boy about it. They’re still just movies.

You won’t find me on a forum anywhere arguing continuity errors, or debating the Ridley Scott vision of the canon vs. James Cameron’s. I didn’t get angry when Prometheus and Covenant went off in a truly unexpected direction, because I’m just a fan along for the ride. They don’t owe me anything and truth be told, I like those latest movies, too.

I don’t have shelves full of toys and action figures…OK, I have one xenomorph figure, and I also have the poster for Alien: Covenant beside my desk, but simply because I love the art.

H.R. Giger’s Alien design and art wasn’t part of why I started liking these movies, but it certainly is today.

It’s fun escapism and for whatever reason, this franchise resonates with me. I can quote more lines from Aliens than from any other movie, much to the eye-rolling annoyance of my wife.

For reasons I need not explain, I’ve been pretty low the past couple of months. Lost a big chunk of my newspaper clients, the licensing momentum I was looking forward to building upon this year has been crippled,  the Calgary Expo was cancelled, along with two trips to Vancouver Island this spring and summer, and until recently, I haven’t been able to see my friends.

I haven’t slept well in quite some time and my back is killing me, both directly related to my inability to deal with stress. It’s been a shitty year so far, as it has been for everyone.

I have little motivation to paint happy animals right now, because I’m just not feeling it.

Even before the virus-that-shall-not-be-named ruined everything, I’ve fallen down in the dumps creatively from time to time. It happens to all artists.

While it usually occurs at the end of the calendar year, when the darkness and cold of winter sets in, this year it’s spring, usually my most upbeat and productive time of year. It’s a feeling that everything I’ve ever painted sucks and there’s no hope for it to get better. I’m a hack, kidding myself about my skills, might as well throw in the towel and give up this foolishness. Anyone who creates anything knows this feeling at some point.

What has worked in the past to help me shake the blues is to paint a portrait of a movie character I like. It gives me a break from the commercial stuff, reminds me why I like painting, and has no financial pressure or deadline attached to it. With a few exceptions, most of the portraits in my Character gallery were painted for my own enjoyment.

Canadian Geographic Magazine commissioned me to paint Rick Hansen in 2018, and a couple paintings have attracted attention after I posted them on Twitter years ago, most notably Martin Sheen and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. The latter sent me two tweets from the International Space Station about my work, a surreal experience.  But, I don’t really expect the subject will see the portrait I paint of them.

So even though I’ve been focused on keeping my finances secure during all of this, trying to maximize revenue, my mood has been steadily declining and I needed a break.

I figured my skills might finally be good enough to attempt a painting of my favorite movie action hero, Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver in multiple films.

My buddy Derek once asked me if she was a movie crush and no, it was never about that. What I admired about the character was that she was a regular person, put to the test. Step up or buckle, and most likely die.

At a time when women in action movies were usually just damsels in distress, T&A accessories for the men who would ultimately save them, Ripley became a leader who held it all together and kicked some ass, even though she didn’t want the hero role.

Say what you want about James Cameron and the stories about him being difficult to work for, but he’s always written great roles for strong independent women. Sarah Connor in Terminator, Rose in Titanic, Lindsey in The Abyss, Neytiri and Grace in Avatar, and Ripley in Aliens.

True, Ridley Scott birthed the Ripley character in the original Alien movie, but it was Cameron who allowed Sigourney Weaver to turn her into a badass.

Interesting side note about James Cameron’s creative skills, it was his hands drawing the portrait of Rose in the movie Titanic. He was drawing right handed for those scenes but is actually left handed. He also drew all of the sketches in Jack’s portfolio for that film.

Throughout this painting, I found myself rushing it at times and having to stop myself. This wasn’t a deadline, I had all the time in the world, and the whole point was to enjoy it, get lost in it, and to improve my skills with the work.

While watching the movie again to find reference, I had a lot of options. I could have painted her with the pulse rifle in the action hero pose, the alien eggs around her, ready to start firing. Maybe in the power loader suit doing battle with the Alien Queen, or standing outside on the planet after they realized they were stranded on LV-426, right after Newt says, “They mostly come at night. Mostly.”

I know, I’m descending into nerdy stuff here. Bear with me.

Ultimately when I choose to paint a character, there’s usually a look I see on screen, combined with the right lighting and I just know that’s it.

This painting is from a scene close to the end. The colony has been blown up, the drop ship has returned to the Sulaco in orbit and Ripley is telling Bishop that he did okay. Seconds later, the Alien Queen emerges from the landing gear, tears Bishop in two and starts looking for revenge.

It’s at that moment, Ripley looks up at the Queen in disbelief, but realizes once again that it’s either step up or run and hide. That’s the moment I painted.

Not long after, Ripley steps out into the light in the power loader and says one of the most memorable lines in movie history.

“Get away from her, you bitch!”

The two hardest parts of any painting is starting and finishing. Getting those first lines of the sketch down, convincing myself, “I can do this,” while a louder voice in my head says, “No, you can’t.”

Eventually I come to a moment when I have to say, “This is the best I’ve got right now” and call it finished, while that other voice is saying, “well your best ain’t much.”

It happens on every single painting.

In between those moments, however, it’s like working clay, smoothing out the curve of a cheekbone, lightening a shadow that’s too dark, choosing colours, angles, highlights, a hair here, another there, and putting in the hours, all in search of an accurate likeness and bringing a vision to life.

A likeness in a portrait isn’t about getting the features right, it’s about the relationship between those features as well. I could paint the eyes perfectly, but if the nose is too far away from them, or the angle of the mouth is wrong, the whole thing falls apart.

It’s a balancing act, zooming in and out, squinting, painting tweaks here and there, flipping the canvas and reference back and forth to see what I’m not seeing, shutting it down and walking away, only to open it again the next day and instantly see something I need to fix.

Finally I had to call it done; knowing that a year from now, I’ll look at this and think I could do a better job of it. But that’s art for you; it’s the epitome of the cliché about the journey vs. the destination.
As for the whole cast coming to Calgary that year, my priority was my booth, not signatures and photo-ops. The video of the interview session in the corral was put online later on, so I still got to watch all of that after the fact. I enjoy behind-the-scenes stories of movie making, especially ones I’ve enjoyed for years.

I did share an elevator with Lance Henriksen, who played the android Bishop, at the Palliser Hotel that week, twice in fact. I didn’t embarrass myself, and simply said it was nice to see him and I hoped he enjoyed Calgary.

Shonna and I and our friend Michelle were having a late dinner one night in the lounge, when almost the entire cast of Colonial Marines from Aliens came in to have a drink together. Peppered around the room were other celebrity guests. It was quite the surreal environment, but in true Canadian fashion, nobody approached or bothered them, mindful that they deserved their downtime too.

I never did see Sigourney Weaver or Bill Paxton that week, but I was fine with that. Had I the skills to have painted this portrait then, I might have lined up to have Ms. Weaver sign it, but that would have been an exceptional circumstance.

At the end of the Expo that year, while everybody began tearing down, a voice came over the loudspeaker. I don’t know if it was live or recorded earlier, but Bill Paxton recited some of his most famous lines from Aliens, including Hudson’s “Game Over, Man”, with intentional overacting.

After five long days, the vendors and staff exhausted, weary and wanting to go home, the place went nuts with cheers and applause. That’s one of my favorite memories from Expo, and a little bitter sweet. Paxton died four years later at 61, complications from surgery to repair a damaged heart valve.

I don’t know what I’m going to paint next, will need to give it a bit to see if this portrait shook loose the creative cobwebs, but I’m glad I made the time.



© Patrick LaMontagne
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Fear, Panic and Calgary Expo

In the wake of the rapidly changing (over)reaction to the Covid-19 virus, I’ve been thinking about the Calgary Expo next month.

It’s the only show I do, but it’s a big one. Close to 100,000 people attend each year. With the Alberta economy doing so poorly, my expectations for this year are already low. People don’t have a lot of money for luxuries, of which art is undoubtedly one.

But I was optimistic it would still be worth my time to connect with my regular customers, hold my booth space until things improve and hopefully make some money.

In recent days, however, with conferences and events being cancelled all around the world as people shy away from crowds, it’s now looking like the Calgary Expo could be twice cursed.

The Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle was postponed yesterday until sometime in the summer, a week away from their event, about the same size as Calgary’s. Leading up to it, the list of cancelled guests was huge. The organizers offered refunds to advance ticket holders nervous about attending because of the virus, and 10,000 people took them up on it. That’s a significant number.

The SXSW (South by Southwest) event in Austin, Texas, which draws 400,000 people, was cancelled yesterday.

So I find myself facing a dilemma. If I cancel, I lose my booth fees, $1200 in a year where my revenues are already taking a hit because of the economy.

I’m reminding myself of the sunk cost fallacy, which makes people do something against their best interest because of money already spent. We’re emotional, irrational creatures and will often tend to double down on a bad bet because of money or time we’ve already lost.

If I continue on this present course, I will spend more money on three nights in a hotel, electrical fees, parking, insurance, ordering more stock, only to potentially have a large corner booth in the middle of a ghost town for four days.

If the guests and celebrities don’t show up, people don’t show up. With the economy down and folks staying away out of fear, the odds of making enough sales to make a profit this year goes beyond optimism. It’s naïve wishful thinking, bordering on delusion.

If I cancel, I lose the booth cost and my preferred booth space, which is based on seniority. There’s a good chance I’d no longer do this event.

I’m not worried about getting sick. I have a healthy immune system and most people who get this particular coronavirus have mild symptoms and recover well. Seniors with existing medical conditions are the most vulnerable to this illness, and the Calgary Expo is just not their scene.

It’s not a question of fear or pessimism, but surveying the land and deciding if there’s a reasonable expectation of growing any crops there. I still want to do the Expo, but it’s a LOT of work, before, during and afterward. It seems foolish to invest that time and money only to be standing there for four days, stinking of desperation.

Ideally, it would be great if the Calgary Expo cancelled the event and issued refunds, but if that happens, I don’t see it coming for another month. They’d have a hard time postponing the event until the summer as Emerald City Con did because that would require a vacancy at the BMO Centre for a five day event, and that’s unlikely. If they cancelled the event this year and bumped everybody’s booth and fees to next year, I’d be okay with that, too.

A lot of people will be affected by cancelling Expo. This event is a big moneymaker for many, including me. For some, it’s part of the foundation of their annual income, especially those putting the con together. People have booked flights, rental cars, ordered stock and planned their big book, art, and product launches around this event. The local economy counts on this event, the largest in Calgary each year, second only to Stampede.

To lose it will hurt a lot of people.

To go ahead with it could be just as bad.

I’m an obsessive worrier by nature, and even I’m not worried about getting sick. Since the symptoms of coronavirus are mild for MOST people, I expect there are thousands worldwide who’ve had it, recovered from it, and nobody even knows. How often does the average person go to the hospital for the flu? Most will assume that’s just what they had.

But if one person dies or catches it at Calgary Expo and infects somebody else who dies, that could likely be the end of the whole event. The mass hysteria, finger-pointing and unreasonable fear that’s currently infecting the world are far worse than the virus itself. The court of public opinion, on Facebook, Twitter and everywhere else would descend en masse on the organizers.

When we become gripped by unreasonable fear, we start looking for an enemy to blame.

The SARS outbreak in 2003 would have been far worse for the world and economy if we’d had social media. Daily updates on where the virus has shown up are incredibly bad for your mental health. What’s worse is that people aren’t only absorbing the panic; they’re spreading it on their own social media feeds.

This is new. We’re freaking out, and losing all perspective. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 1.25 million people die in road crashes each year, on average, 3,287 deaths a day. An additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled. In the United States alone, 37,000 people DIE in car crashes each year.

Could you imagine being updated EVERY TIME somebody dies in a car accident, let alone gets hurt in one? We’d never get in our cars.

But we’re so used to it; we ignore it to the point where we have to be told not to use our phones while we drive.

Despite the assertions of everyone and anyone on Facebook, Twitter and the News Comments sections who have suddenly become virology experts in the past five minutes, there are no easy answers. There rarely are for complicated issues.

At present, I will wait on a decision, evaluate the situation as it unfolds, expect the worst, but hope for the best. Eventually, I’ll have to decide whether it’s worth it to go ahead or pull the pin, take the loss and accept the consequences.

In the meantime, I won’t be buying any masks, hoarding toilet paper or running and screaming every time I see an Asian person. It’s stupid, dangerous, and if it goes unchecked, it won’t be long before we’re turning on each other. Because when things get scary, that’s what people do.

To illustrate that point, I’ll leave you with this short scene from the movie, The Mist.

Take a breath,

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Mila Kunis – A Portrait

SolaraFBThis is a portrait of Solara, a character from the movie ‘The Book of Eli.’ While the movie received mediocre reviews from critics and audiences alike, I’ve always liked it.

A dramatic thriller set in post-apocalyptic America, it feels a lot like a Western. What the movie might lack in originality or depth, it makes up for with a talented cast of actors. Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman and Mila Kunis carry the movie well. I bought it on DVD and have watched it a number of times, as I often do with movies I enjoy. I’ve never really liked film critics, so I won’t pretend to be one here by over analyzing it or trying to convince you to give it a try. There is a clever twist at the end, however, which makes watching it the second time even more interesting.

EliPosterI’ve always been taken with the lighting in this movie. It has a definite sepia quality appropriate to the desperate tone of the setting. In one particular scene, near the end of a gun fight in the street, Solara peers out from where she’s hiding and I found it to be a powerful moment. Without saying a word, her face reveals her thoughts and I instantly wanted to paint Kunis in the role.

That was easily about two years ago, but I never quite forgot it. When I was looking to do another portrait, simply for my own enjoyment, I had a number of candidates in mind from films I’ve enjoyed, but I kept coming back to Solara. Part of the reason was that my portfolio has an abundance of male actors in it and I want to add more women, but also because I’ve thought about this painting often.

I started this in February, but with the preparation for the Calgary Expo, other deadlines and commissions, I had to put it aside so nothing got done on it for a couple of months. I finally made the time for it recently and I think I’m happy with the result.

There’s no denying that Mila Kunis is an attractive woman, but in this role, she was living in a desolate world, barely surviving. Her character lived in what passed for civilization and she was as close to privileged in the role as one could be in those circumstances. But, one of the biggest challenges for this piece was trying not to make it look too clean to preserve that tone, but also not to use too many rough textured brush strokes so that it was overdone. I didn’t want to ‘grunge it up,’ just because I could.

It was an interesting challenge and I experimented with new brushes quite a bit while painting, which made the effort of working on this piece well worth my time.

This was painted in Photoshop CC on a Wacom Cintiq 24HD. Movie stills were used only for reference.

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And the winners are…

Ground Squirrel TotemOver the past month, I’ve been offering up a weekly prize on my Facebook page, a contest with the rather unimaginative name, Monty’s Month of May Giveaway. While there are almost 300 people who currently ‘Like’ that page, there were about 40-60 that entered the contest each week, including a number of friends and even a few family members.  This is why I had to have an impartial person make the draw each week.  I have to tell you, it was a lot of fun for me and I really want to thank those who participated.  I’ll definitely be doing this again.

The winners and their prize choices for each week were as follows…

Week 1: JAKE KODAK, small Grizzly print

Week 2: DANA McKAY, small Wolf print

Week 3: TONY DRUMM, large wolf print

Week 4: PAT WENDT, large ground squirrel print

BONUS: KEVIN LEBLANC, training dvd

Some of the comments over the month made me laugh out loud, as did the very feeble tongue-in-cheek attempts to bribe or coerce me.  My totem paintings are the most enjoyable work I’ve done to date and it’s flattering that so many of you wanted a print. In a perfect world, I would have given a print to everyone who entered, but I’m just not that wealthy…yet.

The questions I asked over the four weeks gave me food for thought.  Week 1 gave me a little insight into what you do to be creative, and as I said on the Facebook page, I agree that cooking is definitely a creative pursuit.  I’ve watched my wife experiment in the kitchen and she’s come up with some wonderful dishes with her own personal flair.  Cooking and baking is definitely NOT a skill or talent I possess, so I have a lot of respect for those who do.  I would encourage everyone to make time to be creative.  Try those artistic pursuits you might have been afraid to and just do it for the fun of it.  Nobody has to know but you.

In week 2, I wanted to know what your favorite cartoon character was, and I was surprised to see a few I’d never heard of, so I looked them up, and received a little education.  As for the rest of those listed, it was like a taking a walk through my Saturday morning childhood and I really enjoyed that.  Incidentally, Wile E. Coyote has always been my favorite.  You have to respect somebody who never gives up, no matter what life (or a Warner Brothers writer) throws at him.  I’m a big fan of Looney Tunes.

Week 3 asked you for your favorite movie character, and I love that so many of you seem to like movies as much as I do.  I must confess, however, to being shocked that nobody listed Carl Spackler from Caddyshack as their favorite movie character.  “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort?”

And finally, in Week 4, I asked which wild animal you’d like to me to paint.  Some of the animals you mentioned are already on my list, such as a beaver, sea otter, fox and cougar.  Others were welcome additions to my current list, especially the bison.  I even went as far as looking at some reference photos for that one after it was suggested, as I think that fur would be an interesting challenge.

One thing is clear, many of you want to see an African series, and I assure you, I’ll eventually get to it.  Lion, giraffe, cheetah, lemur, gorilla,…it’s a big list.  I agree with my friend Gudrun who suggested the hippo.  That leathery skin would be a challenge, and I’d like to give that a go.   Looks like I’ll be going on safari in the future, or spending more time at the Calgary Zoo.

Finally, I was able to give a DVD away to another cartoonist, and I hope that perhaps some of the things I’ve learned will contribute to his development,  just as other artists continue to contribute to my own.

Once again, thanks to all who participated.  I quite enjoyed giving these items away.  For those who didn’t win this month, thanks for being such good sports about it.  Hopefully you still had a little fun, and there’s always next time.

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My wife and I watched the Disney film ‘Tangled’ again last night.  I bought this DVD before I’d even seen it which was rare for me, but there was something in the trailers that told me that even if the story was weak, the artwork would be worth it.  I wasn’t disappointed in either.  I posted on Facebook that ‘this artwork makes me high,’ and I wasn’t kidding.  There’s something about cartoons with a lot of life in them that just gets me excited.  While Disney may not do it for everybody, and I’m not a huge fan of every one of their movies, this style makes me want to be a better artist.  It makes me hungry to sit down and draw.

No matter what creative avenue you’re strolling down, if the scenery isn’t doing it for you anymore, and you’re bored, find something that will reignite that old passion and put a spring in your step.  I have a few go-to books and movies that do it for me.  Tangled is now added to that library.

I’ll often get people asking me if I want to animate, and the answer is a flat out ‘No.’  A number of years ago, when the general consensus seemed to be that Flash animation was the next step in editorial cartooning, I did create a weekly animated editorial cartoon called ‘Beaver Fever.’  Sort of a Rick Mercer/Jon Stewart wanna-be cartoon beaver with guests and commentary, that sort of thing.  A lot of people liked it, including some big media outlets in Canada, but nobody wanted to pay what it would take to keep me doing it, so I scuttled that ship.  I didn’t enjoy the work.  It felt tedious and mechanical.

Knowing what you want to do is essential in any career, but equally important is knowing what you do not want to to do.  I do NOT want to be an animator.

But I love movies.  I mean, I REALLY love movies.  I’m not obsessed with them, by any means, but I can watch some movies over and over again.  Tangled will be one of those.  I would love to work designing characters for movies one of these days.  Not full-time or anything, just a commission once in awhile.  It would be great to see some animal I created brought to life on the big screen.  That’s one of those things I regularly throw out there into the ether, because it seems to have worked well for a lot of other dreams that have become reality in my career.

Never underestimate the power of passion.  Glen Keane has worked on some of the best animated movies out there, often as Supervising Animator.  I’m talking about Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and of course, Tangled.  There are many others of course.  Those who followed the comic strip, Family Circus, as I did growing up, will be interested to know that Glen is the son of cartoonist Bil Keane, and was the model for the character Billy in that strip.

While I have known and admired Glen’s work for years,  I am most in awe of an artist who has been working in the field for as long as he has, a man who has done and seen it all in the world of animation, and yet still has that passion in his voice for his craft.  You can tell he is still excited to be doing what he’s doing.  Watch this video and you can see it.  Listen to how he talks about this character.  To Glen, she is real, she has life, and most importantly, she has passion.

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iPad Painting: Daniel Day-Lewis

Here’s another painting drawn on the iPad for fun and practice. This is Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting from the movie ‘Gangs of New York.’ According to the DVD extras, Daniel Day-Lewis was so committed to the role, that he stayed in character while on set, even when the cameras were off. I’ve seen this movie a few times, and for me, the character of The Butcher is the best part of it.

Had a few requests for progress shots from the last iPad painting I did, but since I hadn’t saved any file copies, I kept that in mind while painting this one. Click on any of these images to see them a bit larger, although size is limited by the iPad resolution.

Image 1-3

Image 4-6


Now that I’ve done a couple of paintings and a number of cartoons with the iPad, I’m aware of a few limitations, aside from the resolution, that make it difficult to ever really do any finished work.

First, the brightness of the iPad. If I paint on full brightness, it’s a little hard on the eyes, so I paint with the brightness set to about half or 60%. When I send the images by email to my desktop computer, they’re a fair bit darker than they are on the iPad, so all of these images have had exposure adjustments in Photoshop.

My desktop and laptop computers are colour calibrated, so it’s a little unnerving to paint in colour on the iPad, because it doesn’t look the same when I bring it into Photoshop. This is why I painted in black and white first, in order to get the values right. After that, I added a colour layer in the ArtStudio app, then I flattened it and continued painting. As you can see, most of the work, however, was done in black and white.

While I’m pleased with the way this painting turned out, I might have chosen a difference reference photo to work from, as I think I could have found a better pose for the character. But since this is as far as I intend on taking this image, no harm, no foul. It was good practice.

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iPad Painting: James Whitmore

Here is another painting done on the iPad, very different than my usual style. This is a value study of the great character actor, James Whitmore. If I were to title this piece, I’d probably call it ‘Brooks Was Here,’ as it’s not so much the actor that I wanted to paint, but his character, Brooks Hatlen from The Shawshank Redemption.

For every larger than life Brad Pitt or George Clooney on the silver screen, there are a hundred brilliant character actors like James Whitmore. The sort of actor that everyone recognizes, even if you don’t know his name, and have never see him on the cover of People magazine. I love rich characters in movies, but those characters can just as easily fall flat without the right actor breathing life into it.

This painting was a pleasure to work on, as Brooks Hatlen has always been one of my favorite film characters. It didn’t feel right to paint this as a caricature, and even with the resolution limitations of the iPad document size, I could have spent many more hours on it. It really was a joy to paint.

Once again, I used the ArtStudio app and the Targus stylus. In a reversal of my usual method of painting on a white canvas, I filled the canvas with black, and then painted in shades of grey. This next image is zoomed in to 100 percent, so making it any larger would have given way to pixelation.

I’ve recently realized that I need to always have a painting or image to work on that has no deadline. While I spend all day drawing or working on my business, this piece was done over two evenings while watching TV, and an hour at the coffee shop yesterday morning. It was a nice break from the commission work.

With no shortage of wonderful character actors to choose from, I would imagine I’ll be painting many more of these.

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Legend In My Own Mind.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I love movies. It’s not that I’m the type of guy who can name the cinematographer from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or anything like that. I’ve never seen Citizen Kane and I didn’t really like The Godfather. Sacrilege in some movie circles, I know, but I’m not a cinema snob. I just love being entertained by a good movie.

I don’t watch awards shows, and I have no interest in celebrity gossip. I really don’t care who’s sleeping with whom in Hollywood, and don’t understand why anybody else does, either. I will admit, however, that I like hearing that somebody whose work I love is a nice person, too. For example, on the commentary track for Aliens, Bill Paxton tells a story about what a class act Sigourney Weaver is and how hard she works. I love that movie, and that somehow makes me like it a little bit more.

I do have my favorite directors, screenwriters and actors, but only because certain people consistently create or star in movies I like. There are a number of movies I’ve seen a dozen times or more, and I get something different out of them each time. A consequence of this affinity for the silver screen is that I have an uncanny knack for remembering movie quotes, and let me assure you, that’s a useless skill. Pretty sure I’ll need some bit of information that was discarded from my brain years ago, just so I could remember what Frances McDormand said to Billy Crudup in ‘Almost Famous.’

One of my favorite movies is Legends of the Fall. Not because I particularly like the story, but because I got to work on it. While it’s true that I was only an extra, I got paid well for it, and it was a lot of fun.

In 1993, I was an instructor at the Air Reserve Training School at Canadian Forces Base Penhold. It was a full-time job teaching basic training, and I enjoyed it. At the end of one summer session, my boss mentioned to us that she had heard that a major Hollywood movie was filming in Calgary and that they needed extras with military experience. Nobody else from the training school or my unit tried out, but since I had no immediate plans, and it was a paying gig, I thought it would be pretty cool.

At the time, Calgary still had fully operational military bases and the film crew was working in conjunction with the military to ensure they got the right people. I went down for the audition at one of the hangars on the base. The audition wasn’t about acting, it was just so that the production company could find out what your military experience was so they could assign you a position in this fake WWI Canadian Army.

The next weekend, there were 60 of us learning WWI foot drill on a parade square, being yelled at, marched around and basically being treated like we were all back in basic training. Since we were all reservists or regular force members, it was more entertaining than anything else. Their full intent was to run the movie WWI army like a real army WWI army.

We were given rifle training on authentic WWI Lee Enfield rifles. Mine had a stamp from 1917 on one of the metal parts. This was the main reason they wanted people with military experience, and only the 60 from the original weekend were going to be firing weapons. For those unfamiliar with weapons and firing blanks, there is usually something called a BFA (blank firing attachment) fixed to the end of the muzzle on a rifle during training exercises. Blanks can still cause serious injury at close range, and a BFA helps prevent that. During filming, however, the BFA’s were removed as the rifles had to look authentic. This meant that everyone was VERY serious about weapons safety as there was an added element of danger. Only those with weapons training were issued blank ammunition and rifles.

The following weekend, there were 700 more men, and those of us that had been trained the week before were assigned men that WE had to train in the WWI foot drill that we had just learned. Let’s just say that we weren’t ready to go on parade, but they were trying to instill at least a little bit of discipline. They divided us into companies and that’s who we were with for the entire shoot. I’m almost positive that these added guys didn’t have to have military experience, as they were only being used on the shoot for two or three days.

The week after that, we were working full-time. I stayed with a friend in Calgary for three weeks, sleeping during the day, working all night long. We had to be at one of the Calgary colleges each day by 2:00PM, where they would take us out to a location north of the city. Each morning, after shooting, they would bus us back to Calgary at 6:00AM. I never got more than 6 hours sleep those three weeks and almost no time off. That was what we had all agreed to when signing up.

Apparently they had paid a rancher for the use of three or four of his fields for the duration, and they ripped it to shreds converting it to a WWI battlefield. The first time I saw the battlefield, it was eerie. A field full of mud, burned trees, elaborate trenches, craters full of water, and barbed wire everywhere. I found out later, that they put that field back to it’s original condition after filming, and that the rancher was paid very well.

The main tent in the staging area consisted of two large connected circus tents, one full of tables and chairs like a beer tent where everybody would gather at the beginning and end of shooting and where they would put us if they had an hour or so with nothing for us to do. The other half of the tent was wardrobe and makeup and let me tell you, it was incredibly organized. They fitted each of us for authentic WWI uniforms that they got from a prop house in London. These were real WWI woolen uniforms. We were shown how to put them on, complete with puttees. It was a factory of efficiency, and everyone was incredibly professional.

They treated everyone fairly, but tolerated absolutely no screwing around, especially in the beginning. Because they were issuing working firearms, there was ample security on set and they double checked everything when it came to signing weapons in and out. The first day, about 20 of the 700 were kicked off the set for not following the rules. It wasn’t open for debate and they gave no second chances.

Each day, we’d be briefed on what was going to happen that night along with constant safety briefings. We would then march in formation, according to company, down to the battlefield. They really ran it by the book.

For those first three nights, the ‘army’ just basically ran across a muddy field, back and forth all night long. It was very well lit, but it was tough. Most of those runs were rehearsals. We were to pick our own path, know where we going to run, so that when filming began, nobody was running into each other, we all knew where we were going. We knew where the explosions were going to happen, and there were tech guys sitting in holes all over the field. From the camera side, they couldn’t be seen, but from our point of view, it was a bunch of guys in bright jackets in plain sight with control boards in front of them. Their job was to detonate the squibs (movie explosives) on the field. With 700 guys running across, these guys were pros. NOBODY was hurt by an explosive during the whole shoot, to my knowledge.

In the beginning, somebody would come up the line, I think it might have been one of the assistant directors and just start pointing at every third or fourth person before every rehearsal. “You’re dead, you’re dead, dead, dead, dead…” and this just meant that somewhere in your run, you fell down, and we were told specifically not to ACT. You just fell, and then stayed still. When they started shooting, a couple of guys were kicked off set for being ‘theatrical’ when they died, mugging for the cameras.

It was cold and rainy some of the time, but they had constructed the trenches with shelters in them that the cameras couldn’t see, and they would get us back to the circus tent to get warm regularly. Lots of coffee and tea, plenty of food for everybody, ample time to rest up for the next scene.

Once the first three days were over, that’s when the real fun began. Initially we had to go through metal detectors going through to wardrobe in our underwear and t-shirts, just so you couldn’t bring in cameras or recording devices. Anything like cigarettes, lighter, stuff like that, you could just hold in your hand so they could see it.

Interesting side note about cigarettes. They’d let the smokers smoke during filming of the daylight trench scenes to add to the authenticity, but they’d give out hand rolled cigarettes that looked like they’d been run through a washing machine and then rolled in mud. I tried one, and it was horrible.

With just the 60 of us, and the cast and crew, they slacked off on the security a little because we’d earned a certain degree of trust. They started to allow us to bring in cameras, with the understanding that they could only be used at certain times and never be pulled out during filming. While I didn’t take these photos, they were taken with permission. Unfortunately, all of these you see here are scans of small prints, and my scanner sucks. Still, you can click on any of them to see them a bit larger.

Our company went from about 50 guys down to 10 after the first three days, and we all got along really well. With no women on the set aside from crew, it was just a bunch of overgrown boys playing army in an amazing playground, and what could be more fun than that. The cast and crew were fantastic, and I don’t recall one personal bad experience the whole time.

Some memorable moments:
Brad Pitt.
The first night the actors came into the trench, everybody was a little nervous. Close quarters in the trench, so they had to squeeze between us. One guy in my company got a tap on the shoulder and when he turned around, Brad Pitt was trying to get by. He kind of stammered, “Oh excuse me, Mr. Pitt,” to which Mr. Pitt replied, “F**k off, call me Brad.”

Aidan Quinn.
One morning, when we were all getting ready to board the buses back to Calgary, the crew needed one company to stay behind to film some daylight stuff. Turned out that whoever stayed wasn’t going to get to go back to Calgary at all that day. The 10 of us were asked, and we said, ‘sure.’ We were having fun, although we were exhausted. The scene was with Aidan Quinn and he felt bad that we had to stay behind. After the scene was shot, we were told to get back to wardrobe and they’d give us a clean change of uniform, and then we could find a place to nap.

While we’re getting changed, Aidan Quinn walks in with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, carrying a flat of Labatt Genuine Draft and said, “where do you want it?” He sat and had beers with us for about an hour, posed for photos with some of the guys, and said thanks for sticking around.

No Egos
One night, had to be about two in the morning, they kept having technical trouble with something. Could have been a camera, lights, I don’t know, but it was a very cold night. They kept debating whether or not to send us back to the tent. Finally, somebody called out for runners from each company and they brought back heavy duty coffee containers to the trenches. We all had our own cups in the kit they gave us, so while they didn’t want us to leave the set, they still wanted us to be warm. This happened once in awhile, and there were strategic holes in the trenches for modern items to be hidden when shooting started, including those coffee containers.

Thinking they had the problem solved, they brought Brad Pitt and Henry Thomas into the trench, and by this time, we were fairly comfortable around them. They were nice to us, kidding around, that sort of thing. The problem, whatever it was, persisted, so they were going to pull the actors back to their trailers until it was solved. Brad Pitt said, “we got coffee, we can wait here.”

He and Henry Thomas sat and chatted with us for over an hour, answering questions, telling stories, laughing a lot, just hanging out in the cold like the rest of the guys.

Taken Care Of
One very telling experience about how well we were treated. One night, near the end of the third week, our company was running across the battlefield in some scene, explosions going off everywhere, firing our weapons, and a squib exploded very near me. I wasn’t in any danger because I knew that whoever set it off knew exactly where I was, but we had been told that if an explosion went off near us, even if we hadn’t been told to die, we were to fall down. So, myself and the guy nearest to me both collapsed, right into a crater full of water. We managed to keep our heads out of the water, as well as our rifles when we fell, but just laid there until we heard CUT. It was a good two minutes in that cold water and I was soaked. As soon as the director yelled cut, he sent in a crew to get us out of the water. They got us out of the field quick, into a van, drove us to the circus tent and into fresh dry uniforms very quickly. They gave us coffee and wouldn’t let us leave until we assured them we were warm enough to keep going. Best of all, we didn’t ruin the shot.

There are plenty of other things that happened on the set, but what I remember most is that the actors in that movie were genuinely nice guys and treated everybody with respect. The crew treated us well and on the last day of filming, the director, Edward Zwick, told us all that we had performed beyond his expectations. He said that it was like working with stunt men, not extras, which was nice to hear.

The experience of Legends of the Fall reinforced my love for movies. It didn’t make me want to be an actor. Hell, it didn’t even make me want to be an extra again, but working on that one movie just reinforced my love of the art form. It even changed how I watch movies, because sometimes I’ll see a certain camera shot in a movie, and I’ll remember that I know how they do that. It’s probably one of the reasons I enjoy Director’s Commentary on DVD’s so much, too. That’s where all the stories are told.

I’ve still got photocopies of the script and some storyboards, some photos I took and others took for me. I’ve even got some videotape that somebody from the crew sent to one of the guys in my company weeks after filming, showing unedited dailies, including some with the actors.

There are a number of scenes that I can pick myself out in the movie, just because I recognize myself or guys in my company. But for the most part, there’s only one place you can definitely see me in the movie, and that’s this one below, that I copied from a YouTube clip. I haven’t seen it in awhile. When I showed it to my wife, she said, “you look like a baby!” It was, after all, 18 years ago.

Incidentally, this was a breakfast scene in the WWI camp, filmed at sunset. We were told that Brad Pitt’s character Tristan was riding into camp with scalps around his neck, and we were supposed to part the way. They wanted us to look shocked at what we were seeing but not to exaggerate it too much. While Brad Pitt did come through on the horse and we did get to see that, what we’re actually looking at in this photo is an ATV coming through with a camera on it.

If you’d like to see the actual clip, here’s a link to one somebody posted on YouTube. You can see me on the left of the screen from 2:56-3:00.

I’d like to work in movies again someday, but in an artistic capacity, maybe as a digital painter or a character designer. But for now, I’m happy with the memory that I got to do it once, and it was great. If you ever get the chance to be an extra in a movie, paid or otherwise, I would advise you to do it, just for the fun of it. It really was one of the best experiences of my life.

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Inspired by Drew

Every artist should have other artists they look to when they need to find that spark to take their work just a little further. Lately I’ve been working through the winter doldrums and feeling a lack of inspiration largely due to a difficult project I’m currently working on, one that isn’t very creative. While very worthwhile, I’m not really having any fun with it and that’s frustrating.

It’s only temporary, and the end is in sight, but in the meantime, I went looking for a little inspiration this morning, and found it in a very familiar place, in a book called, “The Movie Posters of Drew Struzan.”

I’ve written about Drew Struzan before on this blog. Having reread that blog entry this morning, I realized that anything else I say about him would be repetition. He is easily my favorite artist (no really, my absolute favorite artist.) While the size of the images in this video do not do his work justice, you’ll still get the idea of why I continue to be in awe of and inspired by, the work of Drew Struzan.