Interview: Mark Raats talks about illustrating the Indy IMAX poster, working for Lucasfilm and more

Interview: Mark Raats talks about illustrating the Indy IMAX poster, working for Lucasfilm and more

INDIANA JONES The Complete Adventures hits Blu-ray today (you can order it HERE), which we’ve been promoting heavily, and you may remember Bigfanboy.com was one of the first websites to premiere the IMAX poster for the theatrical re-release of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, done by the very talented Mark Raats. Well I’ve since spoken to Mark both through e-mail and in person at Star Wars Celebration, and we thought it would be fun and perhaps a bit informative to do a little interview. This ended up being timely as well, since Paramount has decided to extend the theatrical run for RAIDERS by another week. So if you haven’t seen it on the big screen, now you literally have no excuse – and believe me, it’s amazing that way. Mark lives in Australia, but was given the honor of being the artist for the IMAX poster, which has adorned the walls of movie theaters across the United States and other parts of the world, and from what I hear is already prized among poster collectors. Check out my interview with Mr. Raats below, and please visit his various homes on the web. If you drop him a line, tell him Bigfanboy.com sent ya!

Mark Walters: For those who are not familiar with you, tell the folks (in a few brief words) who you are, and where you’re writing me from…

Mark Raats: G’day Mark and thanks for inviting me here, mate.

My name is Mark Raats and I live in Perth, Western Australia. I think if you were to dig a hole straight through the globe, you would end up in my dining room…

Mark Walters: This is obviously an interview being done for the purposes of promoting INDY, but folks should know you’re certainly not new to the art world, or the world of Lucasfilm. Let’s start by talking a bit about how you found your calling for art. If you can remember that far back, what was the first moment where you knew you wanted to be an artist?

Mark Raats: I’ve loved drawing for as long as I can remember. I was born in the late 1950’s and grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. Although I absolutely lived for art – especially comics – there was very little we got by way of comics or books in those days. A highlight of my week was the Sunday Times because every week the newspaper ran Hal Foster’s magnificent Prince Valiant strip on the back page of the entertainment magazine. I was enthralled by Foster’s drawing, his layout and his line, and I tried as best I could to emulate his elegant drawings on scrap pieces of paper. I realized – even then – that the key to a good piece of art was good drafting and I practiced day in and day out to try and get my own drafting and understanding of figures, buildings, horses and layout as good as I possibly could.

It was about that time that I discovered the art of Walt Disney. We didn’t have TV in South Africa back then (it only started there in about 1976) and going to the movies was very difficult indeed, but at some stage my very supportive parents took me to see a Snow White re-run, and besides being utterly terrified I was totally transfixed. I had never seen art looking more beautiful and I immediately decided that I wanted to work for uncle Walt. As you can appreciate for a young man living in the middle of Africa, getting to the USA was an impossible dream – let alone trying to work for Disney himself and it was only when I was in high school that a class mate of mine (a visiting American scholar), took some of my drawings home with him and posted them to the Disney Studios on my behalf. A few months later I got a letter (oddly enough I found that letter again only about 3 months ago) from Disney inviting me to enrol at CalArts. I was over the moon. To cut a long story short, it wasn’t possible for me to get to the US so I decided to teach myself animation and I went on to work in animation for nearly 20 years.

Mark Walters: And at what point did Lucasfilm become a client?

Mark Raats: Because of my interest and involvement in animation, when the first crude 8-color CG systems became available in the very early 1980’s, I ploughed straight in. It was terrifically exciting work and although I started as a traditional animator, I put together my first CG short in late 1985 or early 1986. Back then, we used to do a lot of systems work as well, so it wasn’t just animating it was also tweaking the software and hardware to do more than it was supposed to do, and this tinkering led me to Siggraph – the centre of the animation development universe. Obviously by then – like the rest of the world – I’d been introduced to the wonder that was Star Wars, and my plans to one day work for Disney suddenly morphed into a burning desire to work for George Lucas (yes, I’m fickle). I had the opportunity to meet doyens like Phil Tippett and Dennis Muren at some of the early Siggraph conventions, and so my involvement came about more as a result of my interest in the process of movie making rather than because I loved Luke, Slave Leia or Indiana Jones.

I decided to do a series of traditional illustrations that would feature my Visual Effects heroes in their own movie posters – because I knew that without these gifted artists, Arnie, Sly, Harrison and Bruce would look pretty idiotic if there weren’t things blowing up around them or models that conveyed the impression of an epic battle, and before I knew it I was doing some significant pieces that were going into places like Stan Winston Studios and Industrial Light + Magic. In addition to the VFX series, I also drew a cartoon of George Lucas as ‘Yoda-George’ which I gave to my friend and editor of Cinefex magazine – Jody Duncan. Somewhere along the line, George saw a copy of the drawing and he negotiated with Jody to acquire the original artwork from her. I’ll always be indebted to her for letting it go and it’s a day I will never forget!

Mark Walters: There’s been a lot of doors opening in the art community for creative folks thanks largely to Lucasfilm licensing and companies like Topps Trading Cards. In some ways it seems like Star Wars and Indiana Jones have helped breed a new crop of artistic talent. Would you say that’s true?

Mark Raats: Without question. Before we look at the current businesses opening doors, I’d like go back a little and consider the influence of Lucas himself.

I have a huge problem with people who cry that George ‘destroyed their youth’ by doing episodes 1, 2 and 3 because George is the catalyst who inspired tens of thousands of artists, writers and filmmakers to get into the industry. While I’m certainly no fan of the prequels, I do believe that Lucas set the bar so high that artists of every persuasion were forced to raise their own game, and this in turn has been fantastic for the industry in general. Because of the strength of Star Wars, Indiana Jones and more importantly the Lucasfilm brands, licensees like Topps, Hasbro and many others have created countless opportunities for artists – burning to work for Lucas – to get involved officially, and now there is a huge pool of the most gifted artists working for George whom I’m honored to be able to consider my peers.

Mark Walters: Considering your location, were there any difficulties getting your work seen by the right people?

Mark Raats: It certainly doesn’t help, but my ambition was never to be a huge player in the industry so its not a major issue for me. I was seriously investigating taking up a position at a prominent animation studio in Los Angeles in the late 1990’s, but I didn’t feel like moving my family from one crazy city (Johannesburg) to another (Los Angeles), so my wife and I aimed for somewhere between the two continents, and we ended up migrating to Western Australia instead. With the advent of the internet and being able to travel as easily as I do, I’ve found it pretty straightforward to still do business with clients all around the world. Its certainly a lot easier than when I first dreamt of working for Disney…

Mark Walters: Looking back on the work you’ve done for Lucasfilm, what was your first really gratifying moment?

Mark Raats: I guess its safe to say that there have been a number of highlights – each one sweeter than the last. Because art is not the primary source for my income, I’m not the most prolific artist, so when compared with most of my peers I haven’t done that much work… so when George acquired the Yoda-George drawing, I was beyond delighted. That would certainly be for me my first really gratifying (Lucasfilm) moment.

Click on image to see it full-size

Mark Walters: Okay, so, the IMAX poster for Raiders of the Lost Ark – how did that greatness come about? I want details.

Mark Raats: Ha ha ha… well, when I was at Lucasfilm at the beginning of 2011, I discussed with them the possibility of doing an illustration for the 30th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Because there weren’t any plans to do anything official for Raiders, the thinking was that there might be an opportunity to do a limited edition print to coincide with the anniversary. Without going into too many complicated details, the plan was ultimately thwarted because of existing licensee agreements, so the artwork was put on ice. Happily though, a few very influential friends at Lucasfilm kept the interest in the piece alive and it was through their efforts that earlier this year, I received an email to say that Lucasfilm and Paramount were considering using it in conjunction with the Blu-Ray release. Then, a little while later, I got another email to say that while the Blu-Ray tie-in was very much alive, the decision had been made to use it as the official lobby poster for the IMAX release of Raiders of the Lost ark.

I don’t think I have ever had a better day in my life…!

Mark Walters: I have to imagine there’s a bit of pressure there, knowing you’re the first theatrical “art” poster for Indiana Jones to follow in the footsteps of legends like Drew Struzan and Richard Amsel…

Mark Raats: Certainly! Embarking on this project was not an easy task given Amsel and Drew’s long association with the franchise. I was painfully aware that this is regarded by some as hallowed ground, so I tread as carefully and respectfully as I could while at the same time trying to make something that was unique to my taste and artistic style. When I started, I seriously considered using more elements from Amsel’s original poster in my composition – simply because his is THE Raiders poster, and I struggled to work out how I was going to make a new artwork without paying a significant homage to him. In the end however, the concept was too self conscious (weak) in my opinion, so I went in another direction hoping to discover a new solution that would embrace all the elements of the movie that we have come to love over the years. Besides the pressure I felt regarding Amsel’s magnificent work, Drew’s stamp on the Indy franchise is even more significant. Personally, I believe that his Temple of Doom poster is arguably the best movie poster ever created and as someone who absolutely loves Drew’s work, I knew that I had no alternative other than to put my game face on and try to create something that was meaningful to the story and to the franchise.

Mark Walters: And this thing became the image everyone saw regarding the IMAX re-release, it was huge! Perhaps the most exciting thing about it, in my opinion, is that in this day of Mondo posters being super hot, and seeing this baby plastering the walls of large movie theaters, is there a chance we could be seeing the comeback of “art” movie posters?

Mark Raats: Thanks Mark, kind of you to say, mate. I certainly believe that the Mondo campaign has created a heightened awareness regarding poster artwork in general, but will it be enough to re-energise the studios themselves into commissioning more original art? Personally, I don’t think so.

The sad reality is that while the studios spend millions on viral campaigns, trailers and press releases (all designed to create excitement around the upcoming movie), they don’t seem to feel the need to spend time or the money on one of the most important drawcards – the lobby poster. The fact that this original art can be used in every media known to man to generate excitement and spur ticket sales, seems to have been lost on many of the current studio exec’s and this has resulted in them opting for a process that they can control more readily – their in-house graphics designers and PhotoShop.

Although I’m not that hopeful, I should say that there ARE some very influential Directors who champion the use of original artwork for their movie posters, and hopefully their influence will push the decision makers into realizing that original artwork can add significant value to any marketing campaign.

Mark Walters: The IMAX re-release has been very well-received. There’s been photos posted online from the Paramount Theater in Hollywood, where Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg made a surprise appearance… and there’s Harrison and Steven standing next to your poster. Did that just blow your mind?

Mark Raats: In a word: Absolutely! The reaction HAS been overwhelming and I think almost everyone (including me) has been caught off-guard by the incredibly positive feedback. Unfortunately (and this is where location IS a problem), I haven’t been able to attend a US IMAX showing so, seeing Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg with my artwork was a truly unforgettable moment.

Mark Walters: If you could say something right now to Harrison and Steven, really express yourself, what would it be?

Mark Raats: Well, I’m not one of those people scrambling to see a new Indiana Jones movie so it wouldn’t be to ask them about Indy 5, that’s for sure. I would certainly thank them for creating some of my most enjoyable movie experiences, but in all likelihood I would probably lapse into discussion with Spielberg regarding Lincoln (I’m very interested in US history – especially the Lincoln era), and being a plane nut myself I’d clandestinely ambush Ford on the subject of his flying and his aircraft…

Mark Walters: You and I finally met face to face at Star Wars Celebration a few weeks ago, an event commemorating the 35th Anniversary of that beloved franchise. I can’t help but think of Belloq’s line in Raiders, “We are simply passing through history. This… this IS history.” What do you hope to leave behind in your connection with Lucasfilm and the arts?

Mark Raats: Yes, meeting you at Celebration was fantastic – many thanks sir…!

In answer to your question, I don’t believe that I have any other responsibility other than to try and add some modest value to the various franchises. If I can create something that has the good fortune of being associated at the highest level with either Star Wars or Indiana Jones, then not only is this the highest honor but I consider it a job well done. The fact that this piece now becomes part of Indy history is truly satisfying and professionally and personally, I couldn’t ask for a greater honor.

As I said earlier, I don’t strive to be well known or famous but if my work enhances, honors and promotes SW or Indy then the only thing left is for me to hope that Lucasfilm (and George) feel that I have done enough to earn the trust they placed in me.

Mark Walters: And last but certainly not least, what are you working on right now, and where can people find out more about you online?

Mark Raats: Well, as you can appreciate my inbox has been in meltdown since this broke so there is no shortage of choices at the moment – which is wonderful. Without saying too much, I’m currently working on a new one sheet for a very exciting movie currently on the process of being finalized.

I can be found on: Web – www.markraats.com / DeviantArt – http://markraats.deviantart.com / Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/mark.raats.7?ref=name.

Mark, its been an absolute pleasure talking to you, mate, and my warmest thanks for opening the gate and for allowing me into your lawn.

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community’s leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.