with Mark Whiting
The Production Designer for The Iron Giant
Mark Whiting was born in Birmingham, Michigan, which he describes as “a 'Stepford' kind of country club town bookended by farms on one side and a major city on the other.” As a young child he would often make films (animated and live-action) with his friends.
“I used to get my friends together as a 12-year old and make films,” says Whiting. Some were crude animated shorts but most were live action super 8 flicks usually about shark attacks or space travel. Hmmmmm, I wonder what mid-seventies movies could have influenced that?”
Art was always Whiting’s joy, and he went to Eastern Michigan University to further his artistic career. One day, while working in the Eastern Michigan University Art Department, Whiting ran across a poster which read: "Art Center. If you get in you're talented, if you get out you're hired." Whiting applied. In 1989 he graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California with a BFA degree.
Whiting’s first big break came when he landed a job with Film Roman as its head background artist and designed its Saturday morning shows Bobby's World (Howie Mandel), Grimmy (Mike Peters) Garfield and friends (Jim Davis), and Zazoo U (Shane DeRolf). He moved on to Guenther/Wahl studio where he worked on Red Planet, and designed The Angry Beavers. After working as art director for Dennis the Menance, Whiting joined up with the Warner Bros. Feature Animation division initially as a background painter that expanded to art directing various animated projects in development. Whiting headed Willy Wonka, The Jester, and did concept paintings for Space Jam (concept paintings). When the Turner and WB animation departments merged, Brad Bird was onboard with a new project - The Iron Giant.
Animation Artist: How did you become involved with The Iron Giant?
Mark Whiting: I was art directing a project in development called The Jester. The story was being geared for Jim Carrey (I wanted Martin Short's voice) and when he passed the WB executives seemed to loose interest. Brad Bird had just begun work on The Iron Giant. His office was across from mine so I could see how things were developing and kind of watched him and the movie develop from afar. I didn't know Brad before this and the more I saw of his film the more I liked. Every good artist wants to work with the best people he can.
I'd been developing projects for three years and I was getting tired of working on things that nobody saw outside the studio. I showed Brad my work so he could see what my work was about and he reluctantly put me on his tiny Iron Giant staff.
Animation Artist: What were your primary job duties as Production Designer for The Iron Giant?
Mark Whiting: My main responsibility was to supply the background and layout department with a quantity of artwork that would help illustrate the overall look of the film. I designed everything from the bark on a tree to the design of Hogarth's house to the title character himself. As a production designer you have the responsibility of going deeper than the obvious. For example, when I designed the look of Hogarth's room, one of the things I wanted to establish was his youth and sense of wonder. I started by using the three primary colors; yellow, red and blue. But not pure colors — it was colors that were evocative of the 1950's. This translation became a yellow wood floor with red wood waist boards and blue wall paper. I wanted the two bottom colors to be 'earthy' and the wall paper to feel like nighttime sky. So for the wall paper I made up a 50's bebop kind a star pattern. The general public may not notice all these details when they first see the film but movies last forever and you always want to give them something new with each viewing. This kind of thing is important when you design a film because they help to give the film depth and to keep it visually interesting. I felt it was important to communicate on a lot of different levels and to support the story and it's characters in the process.
Animation Artist: You have an extensive background in designs — everything from being an illustrator for magazines to being the head background artist for a number of Saturday morning TV shows like "Garfield." You were also art director for the TV series "Dennis the Menace." How does working on TV shows differ from working on a feature animation like The Iron Giant? Which do you prefer and why?
Mark Whiting: The biggest difference between TV and film is the speed. You are turning out a show a week and it usually shows. It works something like this: The generally over-wordy 22 minute script comes in from the overpaid writer. Two or three storyboard artists set the camera angles and design the shots while the models and props are being designed. The voices are recorded. Timing directors are working on key scenes to help with the flow of the story and timing of the gags. When the story board has been approved by the producer the layout department takes key establishing shots and designs them. The most important of those drawings are then chosen by the producer or background department to paint. All this happens within two weeks. The whole package is put in a box and shipped to a production house in the Orient, usually in Taiwan or Korea. Then you pray and wait that you don't have retakes because there usually isn't time or money. You can't fix everything in post. It's all too quick for anyone to do the best they can.
In film you have more time and money. I'm a very meticulous artist and want things exactly right which means I absorb myself into each piece and really dig. Film gives you more time for that but there never seems to be enough. For that reason film is a lot more rewarding to work in than television but I genuinely like both. I'll put it this way; I collect and study films, but I only watch TV.
Animation Artist: The setting for The Iron Giant is the late 50's, which means that you had to recapture that 50's look and feel. How did you accomplish this?
Mark Whiting: We tried to blend the look I was painting with a 50's illustration vibe. Have you seen car ads and most editorial paintings from 1950's magazines? Like those. I'm not too sure it was pulled off just right but we had some restrictions and my hands were tied a little. The 50's look was also enhanced by the visual elements included in the movie. The cars, the diner, the clothes. All the nick-nacks. And who could forget Teddy Newton’s lovely duck and cover instructional film. If Iron Giant felt like the 50's it was mostly due to the story, the visual clues and the music. I think Iron Giant had more of a story book quality to it. That's what I was going for at least.
Animation Artist: What was the deciding factor in placing the movie in the 50's? Was it to stay true to the book? Other reasons that you can explain? Was there ever a discussion of making this a 1990's story?
Mark Whiting: Back in 1994, The Iron Man story was brought to Warner Bros. by Pete Townshend who owned the rights to the book. While a small team of us threw around ideas, the concept of a 50's setting was suggested. I believe it's to the credit of an artist named Joseph Ekers. Another in our group developing it was Todd Winter who was really the very first artist that had a good grasp of what the Iron Giant was. He did some great looking concept pieces. I believe the book was written in the 60's but I don't recall it making any reference to a specific period other than some time this century. The story just seemed to fit naturally well in the era of the sci-fi movies. It was a time period that was largely unused in animation. It also allowed for the cold war theme that was later introduced. If the film was set present day, I think it would loose a little of its charm.
Animation Artist: Describe for us what a typical day for you was like while working on The Iron Giant.
Mark Whiting: Things always seemed a little frantic there. We were trying to do a film for less than half of what Disney spends with half the crew and in less time. There was too much work for everyone so I tried to be logical. I had to determine between what had to be designed and what were the most important things to design. I asked myself, how much time does the film spend in each location? So I focused heavily on the look of the forest where most of the story takes place and then Hogarth's house with a lot secondary location, color and detail stuff thrown in. Anyway, because it was hectic, every day was an adventure. I'd sit down to do a rendering of the diner and I'd be yanked into a meeting where we were working on the weapons that fly out of the giant. I'd be doing a painting for the lake sequence and I'd have stop to design a logo. I'd be doing drawings trying to show how the giant’s simple face can be expressive when I'd suddenly get pulled into a toy manufacturer meeting. It was like that. I had to take hourly coffee injections. Like I mentioned, there was a lot to do and we were understaffed. Because I'm very anal about art work, I had to learn to let go of things before I wanted to. Every day was a test.
Animation Artist: You mentioned that the crew for The Iron Giant was understaffed, yet the entire team delivered the project in nearly half the time it takes other animated films to be completed. How did The Iron Giant team accomplish this?
Mark Whiting: This was mostly accomplished by Brad knowing exactly what he wanted out of his crew. There was very little waste. By the way, when I say understaffed that's by Disney's standard. A lot of Animated films have two directors because there's so much that needs to be overseen. That's usually alright if you have three years to futz with things, but when you have to cram, it helps to have one vision. It avoids infighting and streamlines the process. Even the Cohen Brothers who invent their films together know when to separate creatively. They're both capable of directing but they understand the importance of one voice. Although they collaborate throughout the film (as well as on the sets) they know ultimately who's the producer and who's the director.
Brad would sit with the animators and was very clear with them what he wanted out of a scene so the artists had a distinct image of what Brad expected. This, coupled with loooong hours by a very talented staff (I know a couple of them that haven't awoke since finishing) and a little healthy slave driving by our production manager helped accomplish the feat. Oh. And I left out perhaps the biggest reason: We had no other choice.
Animation Artist: If you had more time to work on The Iron Giant than the time you were given, what would you have changed or enhanced?
Mark Whiting: That's a trick question. I would have designed every character, drawn every layout and painted every background of course. Who wouldn't? How much time are we talking about here? If I were to change one thing, I would have wanted a more distinct overall style. Something more 'story book'. But the reality is you have dozens of production artists interpreting your work. In the end the only thing you can really hope for is that the look is consistent.
Animation Artist: It seems that one of the initial difficult decisions for The Iron Giant was the design of the giant. We are aware that a number of prior design attempts from others were turned away and that, one day, after an all night working session, you came up with a design that Brad Bird liked. What is it about your design that captivated him and what inspired you in creating the design?
Mark Whiting: A lot of attempts were being made by a number of people as to what the Giant should look like. Joe Johnston had sent in some small silhouette ideas based on Brad's initial ideas. Clair Wendling did some beautiful conceptual design work as did August Hall and Lou Ramano. It seemed like everyone was in on the party at one time or another. However the first thing that I think resonated with Brad was a painting I did of the Giant in a field with Hogarth. Brad sent a copy of this to Joe who faxed back a new sketch that was somewhere between his initial ideas and mine. Steve Markowski and Tony Fucile worked to simplify Joe's drawing before a big 'Giant Design' meeting. What they were working on though was a little on the 'tin man' side of things. Definitely not iron. It was more rounded which I thought made it look more weak than strong. So the night before the 'big meeting' I stayed up very late and hammered out my version of what I thought the Giant should look like. (see pic to right) I blew up my drawing, which was originally only about a foot tall, to about four feet so nobody had to leave their chair to see it and so it wouldn't get lost in all the other submissions. Brad, Joe and the rest of the room agreed that we had our baby. We just had to wash the placenta off.
By the end of the day and after a few tweaks (Joe separating his hips from his torso a bit, Brad corrugating his stomach, making his arms more symetrical, Steve making his waist more feminine) we had 95 percent of the Giant you see in the film. I wanted more Asymmetrical detail on him (for an aliens sake) but didn't push the issue enough, I guess. What I was trying to get out of his design was power and innocence that would ultimately allow for expression. A huge gorilla/machine with a heart kind of thing. I wanted him to look more frightening so you had to look inside to see his beauty like Hogarth did and no one else could. You see that with the monster is James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein. Ya' know the scene with the blind man, "SMOKE GOOOOOOOOOD!". I really wish he ended up more threatening in his 'normal' posture. The soul is in the eyes, not the body. I would've loved to have seen more of that contrast. I think you can see what I'm talking about in my painting of the Giant holding Zeppo...er, Hogarth. Aesthetically I've always dug the design of the Nautilus in 20,000 leagues so that must have surfaced subconsciously in the form of at least the Giant’s rivets. But consciously I tried to get the 50's robot business to blend with a locomotive. The giant being made of iron it seemed like a good mix. A train engine is a huge, powerful, riveted, breathing, animated machine. Sound like anything (or is that anyone?) you know?
Animation Artist: It seems that most of your work would have to be completed very early in the production process. So what did this leave you doing in the latter months of the production?
Mark Whiting: One of the ways the films producers saved money was to be very tight with regard to an artists duration on the movie. I'd been doing work for quite a few months with Brad before we actually started production, including a research trip to Maine. So when Iron Giant was finally green lit, and I was asked to production design, some of the early work was already there. All total it was about a year’s worth of work on my end. Although my contract with Iron Giant was filled, my office was near the background department and although I tried to stay off the Art Director’s toes, the temptation was sometimes too great.
I was 'officially' developing a project of my own while Iron Giant was wrapping up so that occupied most of my time.
Animation Artist: What was the purpose of the research trip to Maine and how long where you there?
Mark Whiting: Live action films have what are called location scouts. Their job is to go to locations, based on the requirements of the script, and document with photography the setting. Whether it's for an on location set up or to build an artificial setting on a sound stage, documentation and research is needed before you can design how and what you're going to shoot. Scouts generally work for the production designer working for the director. They document all series of settings and potential locations before the decision is made where and what to shoot. In our case a small team of us went for about a week to photograph and video about five different small towns in Maine. We shot store fronts, barns, forests, homes, home interiors, diners, every detail we could, including the bark on trees. At least that's what we're going on record as saying. We really went for the lobster.
Animation Artist: Is it true that Warner Bros. threw together "The Making of The Iron Giant" just a week or two before it was to air?
Mark Whiting: Yes. And it showed. They interviewed about ten or fifteen of us the same week it aired. It was very rushed and most of us ended up in a canvas bin (do they still use those?). I'm sure Warner Bros. did their best with the time they had but that was easily the worst 'making of' special ever produced. They made Vin — the host — look like an idiot.
Animation Artist: What advice would you give to someone who would like to be a designer on an animated film, but doesn't know where to start?
Mark Whiting: Sharpen your talent, have a vision and know the medium. Go to Art Center, do things that haven't been done, and wash yourself in celluloid. Never stop learning and try to make everything you do better the next time you do it. You... put.. one foot in front of the other...
Animation Artist: Now that your work with The Iron Giant is complete, what's next?
Mark Whiting: Everything. There is so much I want to do creatively, I'm not sure where to begin. Right now I'm taking the summer off to paint a series of huge oils for a gallery. Then I've got a children’s book I'm writing and illustrating. Set designing has intrigue. I'd also like to get involved with a company that does computer animation where I could do a short. I'd very much like to do production design in a live action film. Or DP a movie. Being a commercial director has always been an interest of mine and I like where something like that can lead. I still feel like a kid. There's a lot of things I wanna be when I grow up.
Animation Artist magazine is grateful for the time Mark Whiting took to share his excellent insight with Animation Artist readers.
All images on this page are ©copyright 1999 by Warner Bros and used with permission