Paul Shipper has been working as an illustrator for the past two decades, producing key art and imagery for film, entertainment and advertising properties. Many consider Shipper to be the natural successor to legendary movie poster illustrator Drew Struzan, due to Shipper’s very specific style of illustration.
Shipper was recently commissioned to create the 40th Anniversary Star Wars poster for Star Wars Celebration, taking place this weekend in Orlando. We recently had a chance to speak with him about his work and his career.
How did you begin your career in illustration?
I studied illustration at university between 1994 and 1997. During that time, I was working on a little bit of professional work. Since then it’s just been a steady. I have picked up clients as I have gone along over the last twenty years, starting small and moving onto bigger things. I actually started with some book covers in New York, and then around the same time, I got a gig with GQ Magazine here in the UK, doing kind of a monthly illustration for a particular film related art, and then just progressively, built an online presence. The internet helped greatly to get my work seen by many people around the world. Luckily, people get to see your work, and then more work comes your way. And so it’s just been a progressive movement really for the last twenty years.
The work that you seem to be best known for is film related, such as poster art and DVD/Blu-ray covers. Is that the type of work you are draw to as an artist?
Well, my interests in illustration really came from a love of drawing when I was a child, and my love of movie posters. I also used to get books that featured concept art work from from different movies that I loved, like Spielberg movies and Lucas movies and so on. I have been a huge fan of film since I was a child in the early 80’s and so. I realized one day that the movie posters that I liked the most were illustrated by a guy called Drew (Struzan) and that is all I knew at the time. And so I researched and researched. This is before the internet, really, but when I was in art college, there was a book that featured an article about Drew, so I found out more about who he was, and what his full name was, and that led to me getting in touch with Drew.
Yeah. In the 90’s, I asked him some advice as to how to become a movie poster artist like him, and I got a reply back. This was before email really took off, so, I faxed him and he faxed me back, which I was blown away by. He was quite pessimistic in a way, because a lot of his work had dried up mostly to the fact that a lot of movie posters were being designed by people using computers. He was the last of the great movie poster artists, and it was becoming a dead art. So, I was a bit disappointed when I read that. But the thing of it is it still motivated me. It didn’t put me off, I’ll put it that way. He quoted a line of scripture which read, “keep knocking and the door will be open to you”. So, I took that as a sign of just don’t give up, and I never have. You know, you go through tough times where there is very little work, when things are unhappy and hard, but I have always had the faith that it would work. And in my heart, I felt it would continue to work. I’m one of these people that has been trying to follow a dream, and it’s never easy to do that.
When did you first start to get a sense that your work was being noticed?
Well, I’m a huge Indiana Jones fan, so when the internet took off, I got my first computer and I was trolling the internet for anything to do with anything that I enjoyed the most. One of the things was Indiana Jones, and I found this fan website called theraider.net which had a fan art section. I submitted my art work to that, and I guess that was probably the first time people around the world saw my work and would comment on it or give feedback by email. You get your friends and your family tell you they love what you do but it’s not the same.
Well, no, they’re almost always going to be supportive.
Exactly, and they have been very supportive.
I would imagine the feedback pretty quickly compared your work to Drew’s.
Yeah, absolutely. Very much so. The style of the way I used to draw just with a piece of paper and a pencil was always reminiscent of his style of working. It’s a huge inspiration to this day, and it’s why I guess I’m trying to keep it going, I suppose. There are a few other people out there doing it too. I’m not the only one. But it’s his style that influenced me very much as a young boy. He pretty much came up with a lot of his techniques by himself. He started off without his own style when he was first hired. He would emulate people like Norman Rockwell, or other artists who did the magazine artwork. His style developed over time, I guess I’m still developing, and trying to find by myself a little bit more in my work.
The comparisons to Drew are inevitable, but do you find yourself pushing back, saying, “No, this is what I can do, and this is my style, and I’m not just copying Drew’s style”?
Well, style is one thing, but say, for example, if Drew was asked to do a job and I was asked to do the same thing, both of our pieces would look completely different because we have different sensibilities and different ideas in our own heads. So composition wise, it would like different, though it may have a similar feel, but it would be a very different thing. Following Drew’s artwork has been something that has felt very natural to do because he influenced me so greatly, but feel I’m just scratching the surface for my own style. For example, they wanted the [Star Was] Celebration art work to look like unfinished Drew sketches. But at the turn of the millennium, I began experimenting with digital ways of working, but keeping it the same style and making things to look created with pencils and paints.
So you’re using a mixed medium these days?
It’s kind of a little of both. The gesso stuff, which is basically when you do a painting on an illustration board, you prime the surface with gesso first, that is still a part of the artwork which I’m currently experimenting with the digital side, and I have only done that a few times. Most work being done is digital now using Photoshop, which has of course become a bit of a dirty word.
Well, I think the big issue was that, like you had said with Drew’s career declining a little bit in the 90’s, digital artwork had gotten pretty cheap and pretty easy for many artists. A novice could produce a movie poster, not always necessarily good, but they can do it on the cheap side. But it seems like nowadays that the people that are making the decisions are the same people that grew up with Drew’s artwork, and are looking to have something like that for their projects. Do you think that is the case?
Yeah, I do. I remember having a conversation with Drew many years ago, and he basically said he is over it, and that it’s never coming back, but I remember saying to him I have faith that it’s going to turn around. This was around fifteen years ago, and it has been very gradually turning around. Maybe you have hit the nail on the head by saying that the people that fell in love with Drew’s posters back in the day are now in the positions of hiring artists to do artwork, and they want to see something that reminds them of the time when they loved seeing the movie posters in the cinema. And so yeah, I think you are are probably right. That is definitely a large part of it, and I’m grateful to be around and working in a time when that’s actually happening. There is some amazing posters out there that that don’t look illustrated, but in essence, they are designed from the very beginning as sketches. There is a company in LA called BLT, and they do a lot of the huge franchise movie poster artwork. I visited there and they have got an illustration department, and all the designs start with pencil. Everything is designed from scratch. The ideas, the way people stand, even before the photo shoots. They’re starting to prop up the poster before the film is even finished. They’re looking ahead that much. So, some of these big films are taking a traditional approach in some ways, but then the finished result sometimes ends up looking somewhat a bit cold maybe and a bit…I’ll say it…Photoshopped.
It’s amazing how that has become a verb.
Yes. (Laughter) It’s a bit crazy. But it is. I mean, even the most inexperienced person who doesn’t know anything about it will use that term without really fully knowing what they’re talking about, because it’s an easy thing to say. Like the Photoshopped big head, blah, blah, blah. But in essence, I have a lot of respect for the people that are doing all of the movie posters out there. I mean, there’s a lot of people to please, which is another hard thing. It’s very difficult to please all of these people and make something that looks like you just sat there and did it all for yourself, and made it to look a beautiful piece of art. Because there is a lot of things along the way that get taken out and put in, and moved, and the sizes have changed. And so sometimes you start with something and it ends up looking totally different by the end of the project. So when a movie poster comes out that look incredible and reads well and you look at that and you say, wow, I want to see that movie, it’s something that has come from a lot of meetings and a lot of effort, and a lot of time from many, many different departments. So all I’m trying to do is to be a part of that and trying to offer a traditional aesthetic to the kind of work from the past, but also look to the future as well. I don’t like to look too retro. I want to it still be current and of today, but still have to be a tip of the hat to where I came from and my childhood and what I remember and what I fell in love with as a child, and I want people to have that feeling again.
You have worked on some pretty notable properties in official capacities. Are there any so far that have really stood out to you?
Well, one thing in particular is probably my first Lucasfilm job, which was back in 2007. It was for a game company, and they wanted the artwork to be reminiscent of the sheet posters for the Special Edition. That was quite an exciting time because the story behind that was a friend of mine, who was an Indiana Jones collector named Les David, was friends with Steve Sansweet who worked at Lucasfilms. Steve has one the largest Star Wars collections in the world and Les has probably got the largest Indiana Jones collection in the world, so they’re friends (laughs). One day Les was talking to Steve, and he showed him something I did, which was probably an Indiana Jones piece from theraider.net. Steve saw it and he liked it. He thought it was great. He asked Les if I had ever sent my artwork to the art director at Lucasfilm. Les said he don’t know, so he asked me and I said no, and that I don’t know where to send it to. Les asked Steve for the address and details of the person I need to speak and I said I would get a portfolio up there as soon as I could. I actually was about to go on holiday to New Zealand, so I took my laptop with me and took a lot of my artwork with me and I made a little presentation and portfolio, got it printed in the little town where I was staying in New Zealand and then posted it from New Zealand. I thought, well, let’s see what happens. I got back home to England and I still hadn’t heard anything. So I picked up the phone because I had the guy’s phone number and I just thought, “Oh, well, I’ll just phone him and follow up.” He said “I’ve got your artwork in front of me and I’m sorry, but we’re not really looking for anything of that style at the moment but I’ll keep you on file.” A couple of days later, I got a call back from him saying “You won’t believe this, but we had a licensee come in and they saw your artwork on my desk, and they really liked it and they want you to do this piece of artwork for this game that we have been working on.” And that was it. That was my first job and I was in the the door then. I was an official Lucasfilm Star Wars artist from then. I have been fortunate enough to have quite a few things: with Star Trek, with CBS and IDW and working with some of those great people in the movie poster industry in LA. You know, they’re kind the highlights. I worked with Disney most recently on Dr. Strange last year, and now with the celebration artwork for Lucasfilm.
When you break it down to its basic elements, what do you think makes a good movie poster?
Personally, I think it needs to be just as true to the film as possible while making it appealing. You want people to look at it and think, “Boy, I really want to see that movie.” It has to be eye catching. It has to have an element of beauty and it needs to speak to people in a way and speak to a particular demographic sometimes. If it’s a horror movie, you’re not going to have it looking like it’s a family entertaining film. Depending on the project, choices have to be made. Sometimes it’s color, or composition. There are a lot of different elements. I think it’s quite difficult to categorically say “this, this & this.” If there is a main character who is well known, you are going to have them fairly large in the movie poster so that people know that this guy is in it. You want it to read well enough so it’s not just Tom Cruise’s big head there and that’s it. I like to have more of a sense of drama, or a kind of scene from a film, or some kind of storytelling device so you kind of get an essence of the film without giving too much away. Some of the stuff I do, for Shout Factory, for example, are films that have been out for many years already, so they’re already in the public’s consciousness. So, when I work on those generally, it’s from that that kind of perspective where it’s not somebody generally who is going to see and pick it up for the first time. The people who are going to buy these are collectors who love the movie already, but you want to give them a new look of, you know, a new piece of artwork for the film that they will enjoy and be able to reminisce the film through this new piece of artwork and relive the movie in a way. And then when they get the film, it’s like extras on the disc that make them excited.
Is there any particular genre that you prefer working in?
I have always been a huge fan of Star Wars and Indiana Jones and sci-fi and action/adventure movies. I was never a huge horror fan, really. I have actually over the years learned to appreciate it a little bit more, but it was never something I was usually drawn to growing up. I kind of avoided scary movies. Over the last ten or fifteen years, I kind of have been entering some of the scary stuff. But growing up, it was always the Spielberg and Lucas era of movies that really inspired me.
We would like to extend a gracious thank you to Mr. Shipper for taking the time to speak with us. You can see more of Paul Shipper’s work, as well as order prints, on his website, paulshipperstudio.com. You can also follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Transcribing services by Eaya Moore.