John Gallagher is an entertainment illustrator who has worked in screen-based entertainment since 1995. His resume includes four seasons working on The Flash, as well as two on Supergirl, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Falling Skies, Once Upon a Time and dozens of others. He also previously spent nine years working in video games at Bioware Corp prior to moving to film in 2008.
As a child, you loved monster movies and comic books. How did these foster your creativity?
Childhood at its purest and most distilled is a seemingly endless voyage of awe and wonder, experiencing so many remarkable things for the first time. Distraction and experience, trial and error. Rinse, wash, repeat. Comics and movies were essential for me in creating the base architecture and form language of imagination, visualizing in a bricks-and-mortar analog way what has perched precipitously in my head prior.
It became a means and a foundational methodology, not only through their symbolic and archetypal power but a viable mode of translation and articulation for all the dark passengers in us as children. Therapy, a welcome comrade, a means of expression when words failed, it all became a constant companion.
I’m an only child so I was accustomed to flights of fancy solo as it was, and exploring psycho-topography was part of that. Comics and film were prime catalysts in bringing the beast to life and feeding it with eye proteins, giving it legs, breath, motion and muscle. I replicated what I consumed during that steady diet, unfiltered and undiluted, in that was a loose iteration of the apprentice internship, where younglings would endlessly copy the masters in the best hope of gaining insights and technique by repetition and deconstruction.
But rather than it being Rembrandt or Caravaggio, my gods were Kirby, Byrne, Frazetta, Kane, Adams the usual pantheon of influences. I never picked up a Super 8 camera so my storytelling tools were pencils and paper and off I wandered in to the wilderness of illustration with a certain uncertainty.
How did Star Wars affect you and your future career?
It was the nuclear option, a megaton warhead in a field of firecrackers. It literally blew my mind. Like many of my contemporaries, I’m no exception, that scrappy little pulp-influenced indie film changed my life. Not day-to-day, I still suffered through bad haircuts, corduroy and velour and the entire Bigfoot season of Six Million Dollar Man.
It was the annihilation of soft, cheap and easy. A wakeup call. Up until then I think I’d been waiting, or it certainly felt like it, for something like Star Wars to roar into my life, sharpen my focus and galvanize my resolve. It flipped the switch from only considering the narrative of visual storytelling as surface gloss and momentary interest to something more resonant and particaptory.
It made me think outside myself and of audience and fandom. It introduced, via a clever mashup pop-culture conduit, notions of metaphor, archetype, the mythology of the heroes journey, extraordinary and dense conceits in what until then had been a relatively modest two-handed imaginary landscape of Hammer Films, Universal Monsters, Marvel monthlies and dog-eared Sgt. Rock comics cribbed from my cousin’s collection.
Seeing the Star Destroyer fill the screen for the first time when you’d just watched a Happy Days rerun where Fonzie jumps the shark tank in his motorbike takes you from sitting still to escape velocity. I cannot overstate the positive influence it had. I swore in the theater May 25, 1977, that I was going to do *that*. I didn’t know how, I knew people did *that” from reading Starlog and Famous Monsters, but I was going to, hell or high water, whatever it took.
You worked in comics for a while. What was that experience like? What were some of the highlights of that phase of your career?
Interesting and essential but ultimately a combination of good timing and premature enthusiasm. I attended art college for a year right out of high school and found it, and myself, wanting. It wasn’t the right fit for me and given the nature of instruction there was a pre-occupation with and divide between conceptual and representational work which created a schism I wasn’t able to reconcile at the time.
So I though it was time to dive boldly into the brackish waters of the black and white comics explosion and see what happens. I didn’t give it a lot of forethought. I put together samples and mailed them out to publishers. I had a slick clean style and a limited wheelhouse.
That was the good timing component in that there were numerous new venues, options and publishers for creative voices to be heard and seen. The prematurity is that I ultimately started to develop on a much later timeline that simply didn’t line up with the one that I was presently toiling in. I had no worldview, no disposition, no authentic voice. I really had no business doing it. That of course hasn’t stopped many since, but I was also approaching it from a position of vanity and desperation, not power and security.
I had a few tricks lifted from far more accomplished creators and rode those ragged trying to find where and how the work was going to land the entire time. I flailed and failed. I made deadlines but certainly made no waves and disappeared without a trace.
My comics ‘career’ folded its shingle and closed up shop after a couple years of intermittently churning out derivative dross for Eternity and Malibu on long forgotten titles exiled to the ash bin of comics history.
The highlight was that it ended unceremoniously and quietly with absolutely no fanfare. I was free to return as and if I saw fit, when the time was right and the creative pieces in place, which I did and it’s been an amazing experience full stop. I do covers now and they’ve been gaining a lot of traction in the industry. Offers are rolling in much more frequently for a nice range of publishers and I couldn’t be more thrilled, purely from a pure nerd bucket list perspective.
Tell us about your time at Bioware. What games did you work on? What were your favorite projects? What are you most proud of from those days?
Ha! What a wild, unpredictable and slightly surreal time that was. I recall it all with fondness and pride. Even though, at the time for most of it we were building the airplane as we were flying it.
I was writing and producing TV segments and commercials at the time, freelancing around town and building a decent reputation and then Bioware happened. I did a couple profiles on them for local broadcasters and given our immediate rapport was asked if I could do anything else outside of my production work.
“I can draw like a muddafugga”
“Right we’ve heard that before”
“Not from me you haven’t.”
I came in with my portfolio – I’d never stopped drawing since before I went back to school in 1992 for my diploma in broadcasting – and rest is video game history. A dizzying blur of huge AAA world-class projects one after another, mapping uncharted territory – and given that I was a inspired and elevated by collectively crafted art – a chance to return the favor to an audience I did and still do consider myself to be an active involved member of.
I was chief visual architect on all of the Baldurs Gate series, Jade Empire, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age: Origins. Those were all in the capacity of main concept designer. I helped piecemeal heavy lifting on all the other projects in various stages: Neverwinter Nights, MDK2, Mass Effect, even Shattered Steel but given the nature of development at the time at the studio, you tend to remain landlocked on your primary game as the asset count is an unbelievable amount of output on even a small scale game. AAA titles lasting 200 hours have a metric fuckton of content in the pipeline.
If I were pressed to make a choice, given my own history the opportunity to create new content and stake a claim in the Star Wars universe was a fanboy’s dream come true. Coupled with a visit to Skywalker Ranch and my arranging a visit with Ralph McQuarrie at his home for an afternoon made KOTOR the pride standout. And to have characters like Revan and HK47 be so beloved and cherished by my tribe is something else entirely. But they were all a rare and exquisite privilege to be a part of and the teams on them remain close to my heart for the most part.
I went from enlightened amateur to seasoned pro during my time at Bioware and that prepared me for any contingency in the professional arena. Once you’ve been through the hardcore front line development wars, you fear nothing creatively.
Do you ever miss working in games? How did this opportunity help you develop professionally?
A conditional no but not a categorical no. It’s mostly a young human’s game. That contagious groupthink energy, the manic fearlessness, oversmart overstimulated ego battleground isn’t for the faint of heart or for anyone who yearns for a rich and compelling life away from an all-consuming industry.
It can swallow your life whole and you won’t even notice you’re in the whale’s belly and being digested because it’s a ‘dream job’. It’s settled into early middle age now as an industry but still traps with that cultural vaudeville cane, you know the one between working someplace cool and awesome traded for your twenties and thirties? Young and cheap are the perfect fuel that drives the cruel indifferent machine of games industry.
That’s not news. And neither is the fact I’m not a child nor am I near cheap. Having been responsible for steering my own ship for so long I tend to actively collaborate with a different breed of creative now at a particular level that games doesn’t always encourage. It’s my jam to stand on the gas with big ideas and cool people. My manifold interests are firmly in place and I remain actively committed to interesting challenges in my paying work.
Again, I’m not a nostalgist and I recall the experience fondly and hold it in high regard, but I just continued forward with fierce determination and burning ambition. Sometimes that’s all it seemed I had and likely did haha. But it worked out pretty well and the lessons learned during those formative years and the cautionary notes therein armed me for the next act of a career.
I wasn’t sure I even had a next stage after parting ways with Bioware. It could very well have been one and done. It turns out there was a deep second act in store and then some.
How did you end up in illustration? How broad is your scope of responsibilities?
While I was at Bioware I’d had the opportunity to storyboard a few low budget horror films that had rolled through town over the years : Ginger Snaps 2 and 3, Santa’s Slay and found myself on the IATSE 212 Art Dept roster, one of four people.
As fate would have it Universal TV rolled into Edmonton late 2007 with their anthology series Masters of Horror: Fear Itself. Piloting the art department was the formidable duo of Steve Geaghan, production designer and Suki Parker, art director both of whom remain friends and professional inspirations. Given my name was on a very short list Steve called me and I went in for an interview.
We got along well immediately and that settled that. I boot camped the 13-episode season as a crash course in series television and my backup plan kicked in: digital art instructor at a technical college. I took an intensive three week course in becoming an instructor and was actually at orientation for new students, a full auditorium staring back at me during roll call when Steve called.
“I have a show, sci-fi series called Defying Gravity Nine months, three months prep, starts Monday. You in or you out?’
I took the chairman of the department aside and said, ‘I’m going to Vancouver to kick ass next level. I have my replacement ready to go. See ya!’
This was a Wednesday afternoon. And knowing exactly two people and with nine months to level up that started the Vancouver chapter and I’ve been here since I arrived September 2008 with zero regrets or hesitation. Hell of a ride.
As for responsibilities, it can vary according to the show. For features you tend to, but not always, specialize: vehicles, costumes, props, environments, playback, vfx design, keyframe art, depending on timelines, budgets, skill sets, availabilities.
You’re in, you’re out, fire and forget either early in development, pre-production and cut loose once shooting starts. Again, usual but plenty of moving pieces on huge shows and it can be any number of scenarios.
On a series you get to have an omnivorous changing diet from episode to episode. Some episodes it’s all location conversions, or concept design or environmental mattes. Other ones it’s all set embellishment and decoration. I’ve been responsible for all of the above at one time or another and more often than not there’s plenty of overlap. Never a dull creative moment!
I often describe it as when everyone needs to be on the same page I’ve the one who draws it. The linchpin of production illustration in entertainment is to answer as many questions as possible for as many departments as possible so everyone knows their level of involvement, if at all, and ensure assets are procured, budgets in place and logistics considered. The ecosystem requires constant communication and that goes for visual communication as well.
Can you walk us through the timeline for a television show, from concept art through when we see it on TV? Where are your points of involvement?
Sure. We normally get an approved outline which gives us a general sense of the next episode and sometimes in a plot cluster of three or four episode teleplays. I’m normally working a few episodes ahead as the majority of what I end up drawing costs in materials, time and labor so the more runway we have to get on top of it the better. Decisions need to be made, revisions adjusted, final moves put into motion.
The art directors and production designer will start their specific breakdowns once the network-approved script arrives soon after outline because that stays, for the most part, content locked. I’m in early and stay there on task as long as required but usually am out and on to the next task before the episode starts shooting.
It’s not always run and gun but there is a constant percussion to the bootstrap problem solving. The velocity with which it unfolds is an irresistible force so you better have your head in the game. As I mentioned earlier. some episodes are illustration heavy, others light depending on the particular needs of that slice of 43 minutes of long-form narrative.
The one constant you can be assured of is change is constant and even the nature of change itself can be unpredictable and unexpected. We accomplish the nearly impossible on a monotonously regular basis so the playing field itself can sometimes move its own goalposts.
What are some of the challenges you face as an illustrator? What kind of direction do you get when working on shows and movies?
Aside from the usual mortal agonies associated with creating for a living, the primary challenge is solving the problem by offering a viable solution that works within the triad of money, time and budget. Keeping your eye on the ball and head in the game.
After enough time and experience it becomes exponentially easier to anticipate where you have to sink it from and for what price. Generally speaking with new designers – I work closest with the production designer as illustrators are their hired pencils – we get to know each other’s form languages. I get more latitude to interpret their ideograms or tone boards or in some cases, brief descriptions. The shorthand is the first pick-up. Once you can finish each others sentences it’s off to the races.
If you’re granted the opportunity for exploratory work I tend not to do mountains of iterations as it’s a waste of time and effort and largely for a puppet show. I’d sooner solve the problem in two steps than run around the variations track a dozen times showing off output and accomplishing nothing. Work smarter, not harder, when solving big challenges. That said, it depends as some designers are very specific while others are open-ended about what they require and need the design to be.
What tools do you currently use personally and professionally, and how do you see the industry evolving into the future?
The usual bag of tricks for analog work: pencils, pens, markers, acrylic now and then but for digital, which is my bread and butter, my prime assembly space is Photoshop fully aided and abetted by Painter, Sketchup, Maya, ZBrush and anything else that may help the arsenal of problem solving.
As far as evolutionary tract I see convergence as the main throughput between VR, AR and emergent platform technology in the 3D printing space. An intersection of those toolsets and suites can lead to some wonderful work, largely indulgent and unusable at the moment but as production creates more augmented footing under itself we’ll likely see a broader bandwidth for exotic commodities, which for now is largely confined to proof of concept loops and futurist speculation.
I look forward to a seamless and immersive real-time production model. I’d propose we likely won’t be seeing that in the central production stage platform but rather developing in a vendor pipeline and crossing over.
As someone who grew up as a Marvel kid, how did it feel to go to work for iconic DC franchises?
It’s fantastic! A genuinely wonderful thing. While I was coming up sure I was a Marvel kid but was imprinted more simply by superheroes regardless of publishing house or the stakeholders involved.
For me it’s a mindset, not a sentimental allegiance. At the moment my reading material of once-weekly buys is a crazy quilt of indies, creator-owned books, oddball reads and the big two so I gravitate to where the most interesting content resides. And for Vancouver, at the moment, long-form is DC dominated. As for it staying that way and for how long I’m not diving into that scrying pool to guess.
What are your thoughts on the current superhero cinematic universes? What stands out to you? Where do you think the future lies for Superheros on the big and silver screen?
DCEU took cherished and beloved characters and managed to diminish, even ruin, the relationships fans had with them – except Wonder Woman – purely through questionable hires, uninspired material, treating the source material with hostility and indifference to any coordinated master plan.
The MCU took a bunch of third-tier nobodies and also-rans and through treating source material with care, smart hires, inspired and interesting material and an unstoppable juggernaut of a plan, made us care for them with plenty of delicious fan service and be captivated by their adventures in remarkable ways. They let the art breathe, let their actors act, and let the love flow. And made Robert Downey Jr the highest paid actor in the world. Extraordinary.
What advice would you have for someone trying to turn drawing into a career? Or for anyone who wants to work as an artist for television or movies?
I’ve said this before so I keep it all close by:
*Know yourself, first and foremost. Not everyone who draws with passion is meant to be a professional, in the same way not every person who plays tennis will play Wimbledon centre court. There is no shame in being a skilled hobbyist or enlightened fan. The full spectrum of fandom and amateurs is absolutely essential, as that is the wholesale incubator for all pros. And know what the Dunning Kruger Effect is.
*Do the work, constantly, and take it seriously. Don’t wait for inspiration or a bolt of lightning form the heavens. You’ll produce nothing waiting for divine providence. Even when you feel like it’s futile or you’re crashing in the same car over and over, push through and carry on. Happy accidents happen with startling frequency if you’re willing to free yourself to experiment and crash in the failboat time and again.
*Support and educate one another. The job is an isolated solitary endeavour as it stands. Feedback loops are critical for improvement, considering other points of view, valued features as opposed to temporary fashion, art history and new and emerging work – not just easy bias confirmation on work that looks like yours. And network yourself as a viable brand alternative
*Envy is a boring counter-productive waste of effort. Art is a gift to share and celebrate. A little jealousy is fun to play with and kid each other about but seriously, in the end, awesome work is an extraordinary privilege and it is neither a threat to you or your creative “integrity” to legitimately adore other artists work.
*Appreciate the state and nature of rejection and learn to distance yourself emotionally from the work for the sake of objectivity. It may seem odd at first but will give you the clarity necessary to make moves forward to new levels of improvement. Getting too low or too high will do what it always does which is keep you off balance. It’s not always a job for the faint of heart.
*The higher up the food chain you go the less ‘artistic’ validation you should seek or expect. You being re-hired means you’re working out well for whoever is signing the cheque.
*This is the only profession where you can do it for twenty years before you get paid one thin dime. No other profession is so specifically passion-driven tradecraft like being an artist however defined: writer, painter, sculptor, illustrator, graphic designer, makeup artist, costume designer, cosplayer the list goes on – hence there not being many nine-year-old dentists or seven-year-old lawyers. So treat your work with the same respect as those professions and conduct yourself with the same regard and esteem as any highly skilled rare vocation.
*Appreciate the responsibility and the magnitude of your ability to influence people’s lives. Knowing full well that very few get to do it as a career and many more wish they did, be the role model to help mold the future. Support young artists, provide guidance and leadership, advocacy, inspiration, help manufacture and cultivate your replacements. Be the artist other creators want to be, and if not at least emulate and set a damn good example. Give back and always have time for children, fans, other pros and anyone with a question.
*And above all, be the author of a remarkable creative life however that may fall into or outside of the usual definitions
What is next for your career?
A number of very interesting opportunities coming up of which I am strictly governed from discussing but each one is cooler than the previous. I’m quite likely going to move to producing one of these days and while I’ll never stop drawing, looking forward to even more weekends and holidays off. Recharging is everything. And watching other people rise and shine in the game. Very excited to transition to a slightly elder statesman role in the coming decade!
Where can people follow you online? Are you available for commissions?
You can follow me at Deviantart (uncannyknack) and Instagram (uncannyknack). Those are the only two venues I post new work. You can also visit my work related website: uncannyknack.com and my art store: johngallagherart.com. And yes if people are interested in commissions feel free to reach out to me via my website or my email. Thanks a lot for having me by today Tom great chatting with you!