Maximum Respect (and a kingdom) to Earthling Alex Gross, who supplied and emailed the many megs of scans that make up this article. Cheers Alex.
A FASCINATING BEHIND-THE-SCENES LOOK AT THE ART OF STORYTELLING AND CINEMATIC TECHNIQUE CREATED BY ONE OF HOLLYWOOD’S MOST RESPECTED PRODUCTION ILLUSTRATORS:
ALL SCULPTURES AND ILLUSTRATIONS ARE FROM THE NEW DINO DE LAURENTIIS PRODUCTION “FLASH GORDON”
Flash Gordon first rocketed to Mongo in 1934, to find a fantasy world filled with alien monsters and beautiful maidens, satanic villainy and ray-gun justice.
When Star Wars and the ensuing armada of science-fiction films blasted off in 1977, they too were aiming for the wondrous adventure planet of Mongo. Some flew closer than others, but their high-tech spaceships never managed to travel in the same idealized stratosphere that nurtured the fair-haired Flash and his stalwart compatriots.
Flash Gordon has become a legend throughout the world, particularly in Europe, where aficionados have embraced the extraordinary flair and imagination generated over 45 years ago by the strip’s creator, Alex Raymond. For years, followers of the classic comic strip have hoped their champion would assume his stellar position in the celluloid pantheon of larger-than-life heroes.
This Christmas, the definitive Flash Gordon movie will be launched, fuelled by $27 million, and guided by an international flight crew. Produced by Dino DeLaurentiis, and directed by Michael Hodges, the film has been scrupulously planned to retain the adventurous spirit and striking visual style which made the newspaper strip so popular.
The casting of Flash was of paramount importance to the overall battle plan. The coveted title role went to newcomer Sam Jones, best known to date as Bo Derek’s bridegroom in 10. Flash’s lovely companion, Dale Arden, is portrayed by Canadian-born Melody Anderson, who interprets her role as, ”very spunky, very New York City, but with a nice, vulnerable side.’ The scientific prophet, Doctor Hans Zarkov, is brought to life by renowned actor Chaim Topol (Fiddler on the Roof). If villains always get the best lines, Max Von Sydow will have them as Emperor Ming the Merciless. There’s even a suitably wicked and emaciated acting assignment for Rocky Horror hunchback Richard O’Brien, as clown prince Fico.
Of equal importance to the cast is the unique ”look” of the Flash Gordon universe – a mise en scene of deco-type architecture, rococo ornamentation and colourful paramilitary costumes. Add exotic jungle and mid-air fortresses, high-finned rocketships and futuristic multi-turreted leviathans, and the result becomes a heavy challenge to those who must envision these elements. That challenge was accepted by Italian production designer Danilo Donati, famed for his stage and film work with Federico Fellini, Franco Zeffirelli, and many others.
By the end of Flash Gordon’s shooting, there were enough production drawings, character sketches, costume designs, set blueprints, and storyboards to wallpaper a palace on Mongo. A catalogue tallying the artists’ work from December 1978 to February 1980 (and annotated with offbeat comments from the contributors), indicated a total of 642 pieces.
The most prolific artist for the film, however, was production illustrator Mentor Huebner, interviewed by PREVUE for his selective, behind- the-scenes viewpoint of Flash Gordon. His work on the storyboards pulled together every aspect of the project – from drama to design.
Huebner was actually the third artist to create storyboards for Flash Gordon. Three years ago, when Nicholas Roeg was the assigned director, he had his own artist conjure up an interpretive, metaphysical Mongo. His concept of the film was devoid of comic-strip design and shoot-’em-up melodramatics. Instead, it envisioned Flash as a metaphysical messiah. He abandoned, for example, Raymond’s classic slab-sided towers; they were replaced by a startling crystalline version of the city Mingo. Unfortunately for Roeg. DeLaurentiis wanted the Flash Gordon of the comics.
When Mike Hodges took over the directing chores, he set out to create his own shorthand storyboards. Cutting images from science-fiction comics, art books and fantasy magazines, the director assembled over 20 collages to create an unusual, yet comprehensive, film version.
Mentor Huebner became Flash’s permanent production illustrator soon after shaking the South Seas sand of DeLaurentiis’ Hurricane from his hair. Travelling the globe in the course of his profession, Huebner works wherever film producers need him, taking advantage of the opportunity to soak up historic atmosphere on long, weekend walks. Spending several months in London for Flash, Huebner was the only English-speaking member of the Italian art department. When interviewed, he was working in a North Hollywood office, planning the up-coming DeLaurentiis version of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Personable, candid and willing to share the memories of more than a hundred feature films since he entered the business in 1952, Huebner was, relaxed in a room surrounded by his charcoal and crayon drawings for Meteor, King Kong and other big-budget blockbusters. He revealed that he had originally visualized the staging of classic scenes such as the chariot race from Ben-Hur and the biplane chase through the cornfields in North by Northwest. He was also the designer of George Pal’s memorable Time Machine – ”It wasn’t the best idea I presented to him, but George was quite taken with that whirling disk I put on the back.”
Over the last thirty years, Huebner has served as production designer, illustrator or art director on such movies as The Longest Day, Fiddler on the Roof, The Amityville Horror, 10, Lord of the Rings, Forbidden Planet, Westworld, The Great Race, Damnation Alley and the upcoming Under the Rainbow and S.O.B. He has also exercised his penchant for historical settings by contributing to the atmospheric TV productions of The Man in the Iron Mask, The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Miserables.
An artist who genuinely loves to draw, Huebner creates countless storyboards every year. He taught life-drawing classes at a California university for 20 years, and has had numerous gallery showings of his paintings. More than a simple draftsman. however, Mentor finds that the skills required to be a first-rate production illustrator include being a functional designer with a thoroughly detailed knowledge of set construction, special effects, screen composition, lighting, storytelling, costume designing, editing, cameras, lenses, and space-time coordination.
”The production illustrator,” he explains, ”is the guy who gets the script, reads, ’500 Indians sprang out of the bushes,’ and has to solve the problems of putting those Indians realistically on the screen. Where do they come from? How did they get there? Are they on horses? Where are the horses? Where have they been hiding? These are the questions the writer didn’t resolve when he typed the scene.
”Production illustrators are real money-savers for producers. Some younger directors and executives don’t understand how to use our skills effectively, and try to ramrod through situations without storyboards. But, on a really elaborate film, with multiple camera setups, stars and extras, 500 Indians and their horses could cost up to $100,000 a day. Every minute is precious. There’s no time for improvising or debating with the cameraman about the field of vision. Three bad days on a big film could equal my income for nearly three years. It also makes financial sense to lay everything out, shooting as tightly and economically as possible, instead of guessing and leaving a half-million bucks on the editing room floor.
”Some directors, like Blake Edwards, use boards and collaborate freely, usually for the chases and tricky technical problems. Two- people-in-a-room scenes rely mostly upon the actors, but fifty people in a room have to be choreographed for the camera so that the audience won’t see the dolly tracks, crane shadows, or reflector lighting panels. Then, there are the directors who are resentful of anyone planning their shots; it infringes on their creativity.
“Flash Gordon was a great film experience. Working with Mike Hodges was a real pleasure, because he’s the most sensitive person I’ve dealt with in a long time, a marvellous raconteur – I think he’s really a frustrated actor at heart. He lent a sympathetic ear when I’d say, ’Mike, this scene just won’t play.’ We’d sit down and work out concepts together, rewriting the script at my drawing board.
”I’ve done about 2000 storyboards for Flash over the past two-and-a-half years, along with a number of 20 x 40” detailed set studies for the construction department. The script was rewritten four or five times along the way. Much of the drawing was very detailed because Dino wanted the technicians to see everybody and everything in every panel. When you have over $25 million invested you want to know what’s happening to all of it. We were on six stages at Shepperton, all the Star Wars facilities at EMI, and in a six-million-cubic-foot complex at Brooklands. I had to do a lot of drawing to fill all that space.”
In addition to positioning all the people on the ground, Huebner also had to solve a number of aerial difficulties when it came to the scenes involving King Vultan and the Hawkmen of Mongo. He not only designed the wing-like jet packs which replaced the ponderous previous versions, but also had to determine the cameraman’s angles so that the Hawkmen, kept fourteen feet apart by their wings, would appear to be only three feet apart – conversational distance – when delivering dialog.
In a spectacular flying sequence, Huebner devised a way to simulate an entire squadron of flying men with eight actors, thirty miniatures and triple optical printing – completed in post-production by the special effects crew under Frank (Superman) Van der Veer’s supervision. The man who actually constructed the Hawkmen’s wings, Glenn Robinson, performed a similar task 40 years ago for The Wizard of Oz’s flying monkeys.
The essential plot for the DeLaurentiis version of Flash Gordon is rather like the original comic strip – Flash, Dale and Dr. Zarkov fly to Mongo to avert an interplanetary collision. Princess Aura, King Barin and other familiar characters turn up during the struggle to overcome the tyranny of Ming the Merciless. The Earth settings have been updated by screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., who reportedly received $225,000 for the finished script.
”But,” interjects Huebner, ”even the most talented writers forget simple time and space problems when they are concentrating on the dramatic instead of the visual end of the story. At one point, we used a 175-foot-long set with Ming’s throne constructed at one end: Flash was to crash his rocket at the opposite end, go through a corridor, and up the stairs to the throne. I got the screenplay and found the landing scene described as ’Flash Gordon staggers out of his crashed rocket and says to Ming – “Oh, yeah?” The two actors are 175 feet apart! I blocked out a series of shots with various angles and quick takes to signify a short passage of time, just to bring Ming and Flash together. It was nothing sensational, just necessary for the story flow.”
Though his storyboards resemble comic book panels, and function in much the same way, Huebner’s attention to detail and practicality goes far beyond the four-color realm, even on such a comics-inspired project as Flash Gordon ’I remember the original Alex Raymond strips quite well, and we had the reprinted books in my office, Mike’s and Dino’s. We used what we could, but some designs were too impractical to build, so we adapted the material, and retained the artistic flavor.
”I like working with Dino, even though he can be very demanding, because he treats me with consideration. He’ll call me and say, ’Hey, Mentor. I want you to go to England tomorrow morning, work maybe five, six weeks.’ Then, he will see to it I’m put up in a nice hotel and be well taken care of. He’s not like a lot of producers who won’t even let you go to the library for research – they figure you have been hired to draw, so they damn near chain you to the board, and won’t spring for bus fare to Burbank.”
Few of his drawings are ever returned to Huebner, not even those done for films which were never made. ”They’re stolen,” he explains. ”People take them for souvenirs. I try to get as many as I can myself, because they’re valuable to me as a guide to what I’ve already done. The rest wind up on producers’ walls, studio files and film archives.
“As an artist, I appreciate audience reaction to my work, even if nobody knows that the scenes they’re watching developed partially through my efforts. But the projects that are most frustrating will always be the ones that never quite got off the ground, like the handful I designed with George Pal, including Iceberg, which he was working on when he died.
”I like production illustration because it presents me with challenging situations which require my particular ability to both draw and work out the mechanics of getting a good shot or pacing a difficult scene. Often, just the quality of my work is satisfying, particularly if I am able to create a cohesive overall atmosphere for a film. Sometimes, I’ll see the movie in a theater just to find out if it works with the audience.
“In an illustrative sense, I am directing movies on paper. I’ve even toyed with the idea of becoming a Director, but I’m just not sure I could handle the actors well. I’m too used to nailing them down on my drawing hoard – I don’t know if I’d like to start watching them move all by themselves.”
The storyboards reproduced in this special PREVUE portfolio are from Huebner’s files and present prime examples of his best work. Note the skilled familiarity with which he draws the human figure reflecting his many years of study. Many production artists have an awkward, architectural approach towards drawing people, as opposed to Mentor’s easy facility, solid mastery of forms and appealing warmth and humanity.
Note Huebner’s skill with cinematic imagery and the sequential staging of action, supplemented by directional arrows to indicate camera motion and character movement. By constantly altering sizes of elements, points of view and angles of vision, he introduces stimulating visual variations which engage viewer interest. By focusing on even the unimportant details and rendering every figure in the crowd scenes, Mentor conveys an accurate impression of exactly what figures, textures and emotional impressions the camera should see.
“This sequence is from one of the earlier drafts of the screenplay,” Huebner explains, “and has been altered somewhat for the final version. The soldier who throws himself on the sword was changed into a Lionman and put into an arena with a monster, I believe, to tie into the original Flash Gordon material.
”This was the way I originally staged the initial face-off between Flash and Ming, just after their landing on Mongo, juggling over a half-dozen major characters, and trying to show what types of personalities they have through the pictures alone. As you can see, Flash doesn’t fare to well in this sequence.
”But then, this is Flash Gordon we’re dealing with, and the movie has only just begun.”