Hi everyone, Michael here with a very special interview-- Designer and Artist Mark Goerner has been most generous to share with us his experiences working on James Cameron’s 3-D “Battle Angel!” Mark is an incredible talent at the absolute top of his profession. Some of his work not related to the Cameron project is interspersed throughout this article (along with pictures from Yukito Kishiro's Battle Angel manga). To learn more about Mark and his work you can visit his website, http://www.grnr.com.
For those readers out there who have not yet read Yukito Kishiro’s 9 volume Battle Angel Alita manga series, I urge you to pick it up right away. The Battle Angel books combine a fantastic sci-fi artistic aesthetic with a story that delves into the timeless themes of love, loss, family, free will, and finding one’s path and place in the world. They are packed with hilarious and touching moments, and have some of the most amazingly cool action sequences in the medium of graphic storytelling.
Thanks Mark, for your kindness, and I hope you enjoyed the interview!
MarketSaw: The thing I love the most about Kishiro's Battle Angel graphic novels is how he creates such an incredibly immersive, detailed, cohesive, and unique world. Were you a fan of the Battle Angel graphics novels (the original 9) before starting work on Cameron's project? If not, are you a fan now? If so, what do you like most about them?
Mark Goerner: The funny thing about working in the film business is that intense fans of the creative property are not always the best ones to be designing and developing the adaptive content. It's like having a crush on someone for 8 years and then finally getting your chance...preconceived notions prevent growing into the reality at hand. After reading the series and absorbing the content in the first week of work, I couldn't help but look for the influences that lead to Kishiro's story and world he wove together. I loved most of it, and the few things that didn't resonate gave it character that further set it apart from other post-apocalyptic works from the last 20 years of fiction. It is also important to think how young he was when starting to author this epic. His ability to create a layered fable of a poisonous caste system with the despair of fatherhood lost, and a cyber-youth in moral conflict, struck many chords with me.
MarketSaw: When, and for how long did you work on Battle Angel?
Mark Goerner: It was 12, 4, 23 years? It was a long haul that had a couple stops and re-starts, but basically ran over a year and half for me, which was the longest amount for an artist aside from the production designer, Martin Laing.
MarketSaw: Kishiro's art is amazing, and I think your work is
marvelous, too. What can you tell me about the challenge of
turning Kishiro's artwork into something that would work in a
photorealistic film? How was it "adapting" another artists'
Mark Goerner: 400 million dollar question. This is one of the biggest considerations in the early phases of a themed project that is driven from a popular graphic novel. Potent fandom has to be set aside or at least suspended while tackling the content. I'm sure Marvel deals with this one intensely every time they ponder releasing one of their properties. Cameron had already been armed with a solid understanding of how this would need to be articulated when we entered the studio. What is always exciting in these early stages, is the dialog that occurs when the conceptual art and technology employed informs the director/producer/designer, and causes adjustments in the master plan. The reality is that those that know of the graphic novel are a minute percentage of box office; and those that are obsessed, even less. That is why there are such strong discrepancies in adaptation. Essentially, the movie has to hold its own, in that format, in that era, and with those pan-directional needs to appeal to a wide audience. Look at Akira. The 6 books were turned into 1 anime. Much is lost, and much is distorted to suit the time constraint, format, budget and so-on. That considered, it is still one of my favorite movies. With Battle Angel, there was an underlying consensus from our small crew that Alita needed to retain her inherent style and subtle personality as well as that of most of the secondary characters. Key sets and technology represented in the architecture and robotics were also seen as essential.
MarketSaw: What was your creative working relationship with James
Cameron? What was it like working with him?
Mark Goerner: Oh lord, can I skip this one? Honestly, he is one of the smartest and most resourceful people I've met. Had a few great, creative meetings, and Lightstorm Entertainment had some warm people that evolved into my dysfunctional daytime family on the west side.
MarketSaw: Which other artists worked with you in the Battle Angel
art department? I believe James Clyne and Feng Zhu worked on
Battle Angel as well. How did you all divide the enormous
task of adapting Kishiro's visuals for the screen--did each of
you have a particular focus (i.e. one of you focused on
characters, another on environments, another on props, etc)?
Mark Goerner: It turned out to be a bit of an art buffet with tasks being kicked around. James started a week before I did, jumping immediately into Alita's form and outfits. I initially worked on some of the grand scheme city designs, and then as a few months went by, dove into everything under that world's dreary sun. Seeing as James is my best pal, and one of my biggest heroes, I hope you get a chance to hit him up for further details. Feng was on shortly, and in my opinion was not utilized correctly; but that happens in certain studios and offices on a regular basis. As the last one on, I got to see the whole effort and did my most favorite piece in that last week...wish you could see it.
MarketSaw: What's the most exciting thing about Battle Angel that you
can tell us?
Mark Goerner: NDA's [non-disclosure agreements] are powerful things, so what I can say without issue, is that when they stopped funding that phase of the production, what was left on the walls and in the digital archives was a massive library of what most fan's and newcomers would see as truly powerful. Near the end of the cycle, we began to hit a consistent tone with regard to atmospheres and characterizations that followed or even amplified on Kishiro's vision.
MarketSaw: What can you tell us about what you are currently working
on (and what you have been working on since completing your
work on Battle Angel)?
I have worked on a few different films including Avatar since then, but have moved out of LA, and have returned to working on theme parks, gaming, and other consulting as I did before I swung into the film side of life. I am also in the process of building prototypes and starting to develop a company to manufacture high design architectural surfacing. I still do film art and love the conceptual buzz I get from it, but feel the real world application of design is something I would be remised if not involved in. I am also in the early stages of designing and building a house that is off the grid and will hopefully be a truly unique statement in not only aesthetics but in it's ecological aspects of long term impact.
MarketSaw: What was your working environment like? I heard that the ceiling of the art department was made up to look like
the hanging sky city (Tiphares / Zalem)...is this true?
Mark Goerner: It was a great neighborhood a few blocks from the central shopping district of Santa Monica, California, housed in a soft-modern building from the mid-eighties that had a dental office where we set up the art department. Our old acoustic ceilinged floor with glass partitions defined our quarters which had a great view of a parking lot where automotive rendezvous of sexual fervor would play out, homeless rants were belted out, and where a bird lady and a 30 pound bag of seed was dumped out. Some mornings I swore I could smell Geltrate and hear the faint squeal of a hand drill. As for Zalem, yes, one of my paintings was turned into a couple hundred dollar foam core donut mounted on the ceiling as a device to get the impact across on one of the occasions when we presented our work. It ended up being a good reservoir for trash and things that needed to be hidden in short order.
MarketSaw: When working on Battle Angel, did you mainly focus on producing photorealistic, detailed, finished paintings, or did you also do a lot of rough conceptual sketches?
Mark Goerner: For that phase of B.A., the focus was in creating exciting large scale visuals that where intended to excite JC when he was in town and available to check out the work and progress. In the process of developing those images, there were the usual rough sketches, but largely we used large printouts to create the biggest impact to push the drama.
MarketSaw: What artistic tools (physical or digital) did you work with on this project?
Mark Goerner: We still did pencil and pen sketches for some of the rough sketches, and some of the half/quarter sections detail orthographic views of Alita and city elements, but the majority was in the fine world of Photoshop with the usual clustering and layering of on-line reference, photos from our own archives, and naturally, painting.
MarketSaw: From your knowledge, has the Alita character design been finalized? Have you seen the
Mark Goerner: I believe it was considered final, but then again...even 1 week of time in a production can be enough to provide pause for reflection towards a new design direction. I would gauge that after all of the work on Avatar, and changes in perception, themes in her makeup and suits will evolve further.
A Huge Thanks to Mark for his insight into the creative process on Battle Angel!
I for one really hope that Cameron pushes forward with Battle Angel after Avatar--well, as long as I see it in theaters by the time New Horizons reaches Pluto. I know there are a ton of people out there (both online and people I've spoken to in "real life") who can't wait for a Cameron Battle Angel...and after they read Mark's words I'm sure they will be frothing at the mouth for it even more.
For a great in-depth bio/profile of Mark, check out this article over at CGSociety.