Star Wars: Adventures In Illustration: The Gorilla Speaks?!
An Interview with Illustrator Extraordinaire Michael Pasquale
If you consider yourself a true Star Wars fan are not currently living under a rock — or at least a rock without access to social media — you have probably seen this image of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker and Rey.
That remarkable moment was penned by none other than Michael “Gorilla” Pasquale of 800 Pound Productions. It became so popular that the folks at Star Wars even shared the image. When I saw that image myself, I immediately followed Michael on twitter and replied with something along the lines of “holy hell, you’re an amazing illustrator.” Take one quick glance at his work on twitter or on his website, and I believe you will undoubtedly agree. Recently Michael was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about Star Wars, his creative process, and of course the origin of the name Gorilla…
TSWC: Okay, I gotta ask: is “Gorilla” really your nickname? How did that happen?
MP: Yeah it’s something my dad started for a few laughs. I used to play basketball night and day all through elementary and high school. I had a squad of friends I would always hang around with and we’d spend all day at the park or play pick up games around the city. High school was around the time everyone was hitting the gym and lifting weights. We were all just little dudes though and I didn’t really pay mind until one year I just shot up like 4 inches. My arms just kept growing and the length and height really improved my game. So I started hitting the gym more and became a beast. My friends were still small though, and whenever my dad would see us all together or watch us play he’d always shout out ‘He’s a gorilla, you can’t stop him!” So we’d all have a laugh, but my teammates really dug it and that became my nickname. I actually became more aware defensively, rebounding, blocking, stealing, I would drive teams crazy. They would always curse about “the gorilla on the court!”
Junior year I sort of just dropped everything related to basketball. As athletic as I thought I was, it was nowhere near the level of these high school kids going into the NBA. I had played against a few of them in high school and that’s when I left that dream aside and just focused on drawing. But the name still stayed with me over all these years, I have no idea how. I guess I always ran into someone I knew and kept it going. Even through jobs and in the toy industry, folks know me as Gorilla, so once I decided to start my own studio, 800 Pound Productions made the most sense.
TSWC: So how long have you been illustrating? How does one discover he’s an artistic genius?
MP: I’ve been drawing as far back as I can remember. I’ve always had a fascination with putting thoughts on paper and I would spend hours sitting at my little table with crayons and construction paper. I always had some form of artistic influence growing up. My sister was very much into graphic design and advertising, and my aunt was a painter and a sculptor. Even my next door neighbor, who was my first best friend, would draw these amazing cartoons. As we got older, he got into graffiti and would show me his pieces and I would just be blown away.
As a little kid I would always take out those “how to draw” books from the library. Monsters, dinosaurs, aliens, anything that was scary and out of the ordinary was so much fun for me to try and draw. So I sort of taught myself the basic things of character design and shape and form without even knowing it. It was just a lot of fun. I loved drawing cartoons and started mimicking the styles of Looney Tunes, Pink Panther, Voltron, He-man, Transformers — all the great cartoons from the 80’s. As I got older, much like everyone else, I was heavily into comic books. Around the time Todd McFarlane and all those Marvel guys were dominating. I couldn’t believe the beautiful styles of drawing that emerged during that time. It took over my whole life, and I would practice night and day to try to be on the same level as those guys. In high school I was submitting artwork to Marvel and DC. I was entering contests, having my portfolio reviewed at conventions, it was crazy. NONE of it worked out, but I didn’t give up, so I headed to art school. After that, I bounced around doing freelance here and there. Wasn’t working out again, so I ended up landing a job as a doorman on the upper east side for the steady pay. After a few years of that I was offered a job to design toys and have been doing that off and on for over a decade. Still something was missing, so I began doing fan art, and it’s been really fulfilling especially with the advent of social media. The amazing feedback and support from the fans has been incredible.
TSWC: Can you tell me about your creative process? What sort of things do into your design?
MP: I’ve learned to just draw whenever inspiration hits. Designing products and even in commission work, I’ll be asked to create something out of my comfort zone. I’d have to mentally prepare myself and sort of drag my creativity out of bed, so to speak. But with fan art, I could read an article, watch a trailer, see something on social media, converse with friends — ideas just come from everywhere. I’ll then do some research, gather photos for likeness or costume references, maybe grab a few pieces from artists I admire for even more inspiration. I don’t really like to repeat the same techniques too much and always like to try new color schemes, or tougher angles, or maybe something more graphically simple, I just like to keep things fresh and see where it goes.
I mostly work in the digital medium, but once in a while I’ll go back to traditional pencil and ink drawings. Again, just whatever sort of mood I’m in, but usually I’ll do a few scribbles on my Cintiq using Sketchbook Pro. Figuring out perspective and composition. Then I’ll usually just go right into finished line work. I don’t like to do too much in the rough sketch stage, unless I get stuck on a hand or the likeness of the character, but usually I just go right into inking. With digital you can always go back and undo or adjust the lines however you like with no consequence. If I did a traditional drawing I’d spend more time in the layout and sketching stage before finalizing it in ink and color. Once the lines are done, I take the file into Photoshop and start to lay the flat colors down. Then it gets really fun, and I can relax and figure out a light source. Then start to render the shadows and highlights, and special effects, glows, smoke, textures and all of the finishing touches to complete the piece.
TSWC: What work would you say you are most proud of?
MP: I don’t really know yet! I always have a tendency, I think much like other artists, to not like my own work. I always feel I could have tried harder and remind myself to do better on the next one. If I had to mention any, it may have been the A New Hope tribute piece I did a few months back. I had posted each character individually as I was making them and everyone just really enjoyed it. Then I composited them all together in a movie type of poster format and folks went bananas. I then did another version using the throwback comic book colors and that seemed to go over really well also.
TSWC: What was the most difficult project you ever worked on? Was there anything that just, like, kicked your ass?
MP: Too many to mention lol. I did some work for the folks at Five Nights at Freddy’s, the video game where the pizza place animatronics come after you at night. Horror has always been one of my favorite genres, so I immediately jumped at the opportunity, but the workload was intense. I may have done about 50 pieces altogether along with buttons, pins, stickers etc. Of course time is always a factor and I was cranking those out mostly through the winter months. I had never heard of the game, so I spent most of the time researching and playing it for ideas, which left limited time to actually do the pieces. Sometimes having to break nights once or twice to meet the deadline. You’ve probably seen the posters at Target and such.
One other time was creating art for a book solely from photos. Not really drawing but more so doing image editing and compositing photos. All by myself. I created these pieces and designed a companion book for the Living Dead Dolls in Wonderland toy line. Of course, Living Dead Dolls is a horror themed line of toys, spooky dolls that sometimes feature their own take on pop culture. Really awesome to work with them and always a ton of fun. There were only twelve pages with images, plus the cover but it took about a month and a half to complete since the dolls did not exist yet. So I had to make due with what was available, and photoshop the entire thing. There were no dioramas made, it was all composited from stock images as well as the dolls. Sometimes using almost 100 stock images to compose one illustration. I may have worked on that straight everyday until it was completed, even sleeping at the office, whatever it took to make a deadline.
Another example would be the Batman: Arkham Origins Collectors Edition set. I was the art director and production manager on everything in this image. I had to compose the art of book from assets of multiple studios as well as manage the production of the statue, create the graphics for the paper goods and accessories as well as the design for the overall packaging. Towards the end, I had to hire an assistant to help on that one, I think he must’ve moved in with me at the time!
I was compensated greatly in the end for all of these examples, but sometimes the ends don’t justify the means. And ever since my daughter was born I tend to steer clear of these sort of projects that keep me away from family.
TSWC: What’s it like to be an illustrator nowadays? I imagine it’s pretty tough.
MP: It’s really tough, you never know what you’re getting into most of the time and you really can’t be choosy if you want to make a decent living. Tons of competition and lots of hungry young artists. Harder even to stand out from the crowd and get noticed, but once you find a niche it does get much easier. There are some folks who make it big, but also as I mentioned above, have to sacrifice to be successful. I’m learning more to work smart, not hard these days. The doodles that took 20 minutes sometimes gets more attention than that piece you worked on all week. Art takes time though and whether you are doing it for yourself, or are working on books or feature films, it’s important to take a step back and enjoy life, exercise and spend time with family.
TSWC: What projects does the Gorilla have going right now?
MP: Professionally, I was just hired to design a wave of small collectible figures based on another popular video game franchise. Can’t mention which one that is just yet, but the experience has been a lot of fun and prototypes will probably be shown at next year’s Toy Fair in February. For my own projects, I have several fan art pieces planned for the rest of the year, more Star Wars tribute pieces, a Batman Animated tribute and most likely a ton of The Last Jedi and Rebels art. Started venturing into the realm of enamel pins, so you can expect to see a lot more of those in the coming weeks. Plus I’m working on my first art book collecting some of my most popular pieces as well as a few new ones. Looking to launch that on Kickstarter pretty soon!
TSWC: And where is our favorite Gorilla going to be in 10 years?
Living on the West Coast maybe, touring the con circuit with my daughter sitting next to me! Maybe running my own company for licensed merchandise. Toys, shirts, pins, plush you name it!
TSWC: What do you think of the art in recent SW comics like Vader and Aphra? How about the stylistic differences between Rebels and TCW?
MP: I’ve actually lost some interest recently, mostly preoccupied with work and stuff and have just lost track, but I think the comic art has been fantastic. I personally prefer a more stylish approach and have noticed that the art does sort of blend well together between the titles. Not sure if that was premeditated, but I do enjoy it and it does work well when dealing with serious canon. Again, I’m from that explosive Marvel/Image generation where you can look at the panels and immediately know who the artist was. It’s a visual medium, after all, and that’s the main reason I spend money on them, for the awesome artwork! Some of my favorites are Pepe Larazz, Jorge Molina and Salvador Larroca, those guys have always been inspirational. There’s also the IDW series of Star Wars Adventures which has caught my eye immediately. Really looking forward to checking those out, they’ve also done covers with a specific group of artists like Cheeks Galloway, Jon Sommariva and Chris Uminga. All with distinct styles, all instantly recognizable, that’s the kind of stuff I lean towards.
TCW didn’t appeal to me at first, but as I kept watching I started to love their character designs a lot. The lighting and textures, beautiful backdrops and intense action sequences along with great stories made it one of my favorite shows of all time. I definitely prefer that animation over Rebels. When Rebels debuted, I was instantly hooked though and the timeline they were set in kept me wanting more. The characters are much more streamlined but also have more style I think than TCW. Some of the heroes were hit or miss for me. Vader, the Stormtroopers and all of the Inquisitors were the coolest guys in my opinion. Even Maul and Thrawn, I guess I’m more drawn to the villain designs in this series! But the vehicles, locations and scenery are all really beautiful and pull you right in.
TSWC: What do you think about the future of Star Wars? Are you excited for the upcoming Han Solo and the possibility of an Obi-Wan standalone?
MP; I have no idea what to expect anymore with Star Wars, I’ve learned to just roll with it. I think when TFA was announced, everyone sort of knew what to expect as far as seeing familiar faces as well as new iconic ones. And after watching it, I still have no idea where the story will go, and I’m cool with that. I just like to see things unfold and I try not to predict anything, just keeping my head-canon to myself or save it for some artwork. I think with TLJ, we are going to get something we’ve never seen or felt before. I just get a feeling a major twist is inevitable. Also I’m just really looking forward to seeing more Luke Skywalker!
I Loved Rogue One, wasn’t keen on a Han Solo movie but seeing that pic of Ron Howard hinting at Chewbacca’s family has me very curious now. I think the spinoffs are a great way to glue all of the trilogies together. I’d LOVE to see an Obi-Wan spinoff, one of my favorite characters, especially if it’s between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. Twin Suns was one of my favorite episodes in Rebels. BRING IT ON!
Novels, comics, cartoons and gaming, for me it’s all been a blast so far. I don’t get too worked up over any new announcements, I like to be surprised and as long as it keeps coming I’ll be very happy. I’m just really looking forward to more stories, more characters and more toys!
TSWC: Gorilla, I can’t tell you how much of a pleasure this has been. Your artwork is nothing short of stunning. May the Force be with you in all your future endeavors. How else can people find you on the Net?
MP: I am on Instagram and Tumblr as “800lbproductions” and Facebook as “800PoundProductions.”
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