An Interview With Star Wars Artist David Rabbitte
Artist David Rabbitte knows his way around the art studio, and he’s worked on several licensed Star Wars projects over the past few years. We here at GalacticBinder had a chance to catch up with him recently and chat about his career and, of course, about Star Wars.
GB: Thanks for taking the time out to answer a few questions, David. Let’s dive right in. You were born in Massachusetts but spent your formative years in Ireland. We have to know, was Star Wars huge in Ireland too in those days?
DR: Oh let me tell you, that was something. I moved from Massachusetts to Ireland in ’78 (I was 8) when the first Star Wars was still fresh in people’s minds so everybody in the U.S. were still nuts over the film (actually it hasn’t changed much since then, has it?). All my friends and I pretended we were the characters and collected the figures, posters, etc. They even had a Star Wars radio special made by the kids at our school. Then I move to Ireland and most of the kids had no clue this was such a phenomenon and were like, "Star what?" Of course you have to keep in mind I moved to the country where kids grew up on farms and didn’t go to the movies much. They were all into soccer and sports and not much else. I just seemed to be this weird kid who kept talking about this movie and they didn’t get it. I’d hear them say "Eh, Star Wars is for little kids." They hadn’t even seen the movie! I was lucky to find a few friends who liked it. Once I got out of high school and went to art college in the city and eventually Dublin I found more of the city folks were into it.
GB: You went to several art schools in Ireland, amazingly with another well known Star Wars artist, Kilian Plunkett (who is now working on the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series). Tell us a bit about your formal education in art. Were you handing in drawings of Wookiees and spaceships for course credit back then?
DR: Yeah Kilian and I were in the same year in a college in Dublin. And yes his work was great back then too! I did one year in my hometown in Galway doing a foundation course in art, then moved to Dublin and got accepted into a graphic design course which also allowed us to work in illustration and animation. I was dabbling around with Star Wars art (as was Kilian) but really we had to come up with our own ideas to present for our final assessments. I did a fictional movie poster based on a Ray Bradbury short story called A Sound of Thunder, which amazingly became a movie years later so it was funny looking back that I picked such a project. Also I did an animation short for a final.
GB: You have a more illustrative, rather than painterly, style when you work. Did you naturally gravitate toward illustration or was that a conscious decision you made?
DR: I don’t think it was a conscious decision. I think I studied the art that I liked and thought, "I want to paint like that." I always enjoyed looking at work by known artists like Richard Amsel, Tom Jung and especially Drew Struzan who was an influence on my earlier works, but over the last few years I’ve been trying to get away from that a bit and develop my own style. You will most likely see my future art going more in the direction of scenes telling a story rather than montages as I have done before.
GB: So what, when and where was your big break into the Star Wars art world?
DR: Well I had been trying to get Star Wars work for a number of years. I sent out samples to any place that had some kind of involvement in the films, whether it be books, magazines, packaging, anything! I got some nice non Star Wars gigs on the way that encouraged me to keep at it, finally I was at San Diego Comic Con in 2004 and noticed that sketch cards were becoming popular, so I went up to the Topps booth and asked the editor if they needed any more artists. Right away he said yes and asked that I show him samples and give him my contact information. I don’t think it was even a week when he emailed me and asked if I was still interested to which of course I said yes, and before I knew it I was approved by Lucasfilm and they sent out the cards to me for the Star Wars Heritage set. I was finally drawing Star Wars, but this time getting paid for it!
GB: You’ve now worked on several sets for Topps including: Star Wars Heritage, Star Wars Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars 30th Anniversary and Star Wars Clone Wars. Tell us about your process for completing your sketch cards – character selections, dealing with the volume of work and maybe some of the pros and cons on working on such small canvases.
DR: I guess the up side is I don’t have to take a week or even a few days to get one sketch card done like I would for a regular painting – usually one takes around twenty minutes for a pencil sketch which is nice as you can quickly move onto the next one. I like to keep the selection fairly spontaneous, sometimes do a headshot, sometimes a key scene that everyone remembers. I drew one for Heritage of Luke’s face showing through the exploded Vader helmet on Dagobah which seemed to be well received by fans. At the start doing 100 cards seemed like a daunting task and wondered how I was going to get that many cards done. Now that doesn’t seem so bad as I have done quite a few sets since then. 200 are usually the maximum I do for any set if I want to keep some sort of quality to my cards. Usually I try to find time to do a few color cards to keep things interesting and hopefully a few collectors will stumble on them in packs. For color I like to use a mix of watercolor, acrylic and gouache paint plus a little bit of prismacolor pencils for accents. It can get a little taxing doing so many cards but the fun of what I’m actually doing for a living outweighs that.
GB: Sketch cards have really "blown up" in recent year and are now a staple in many of Topps’ products. Some command stratospheric prices on the secondary market. The word "Ebay" elicits a lot of feelings from artists. Some like it and see it as the free market at work; some loathe it and see it as people attempting to capitalize on their work. What are your thoughts when you see your cards being resold – especially for large sums?
DR: I’m fine with that, it comes with the business. I know what I’m getting into so it’s not like it takes me by surprise that collectors go out and sell artists’ work. I think it all balances out in the end. I get a lot more private commissions from people since I started drawing sketch cards and get all kinds of requests. Exposure is an important factor and sketch cards have really helped get my name out there so I’m very grateful!
GB: You recently did an amazing piece titled "Hoth Battle". Tell us more about the piece and its creation – especially the action packed composition.
DR: It was a piece I did for a collector…that was such a big project and took me several months to complete. It went through a few stages. Originally there wasn’t a whole lot of action going on in there, there were just the two walkers in the foreground, the Rebel troopers and a couple of snow speeders. I was asked to put more action in there and was given a few suggestions, so I went on to add other elements like Luke, more walkers, and so on. I wasn’t sure it was going to work having so many elements in one scene – I felt it may look too busy, but I was rather pleased with the final results.
As I mentioned it was a slow project as it measured somewhere around 40" x 17" and painting mechanical objects can become fairly meticulous. I started off with the background, painting the sky and mountains onto illustration board. Using the layout drawing and carbon paper I transferred the elements down onto the painted landscape, paint in their basic shapes and work up the detail. There is a lot more I could go into describing the process but that’s basically how I do most of my art.
GB: We found the piece to be reminiscent of some of Ralph McQuarrie’s work. Was he a big influence on you?
DR: Oh yes. Ralph’s production paintings for the Star Wars trilogy were such an inspiration to me growing up. We had the portfolios from all three movies so I would study his work and try and learn from him. I had the pleasure of meeting him in ’97 at a local convention and he was a real nice guy. He signed a poster for me of that classic shot of Vader and Luke with the breathing mask dueling with lightsabers from the original movie in the Blockade Runner. I always wondered what A New Hope would have been like if that idea would have been realized. I still have the signed poster displayed in my house today.
GB: Celebration IV was a terrific event back in May of 2007. You had the chance to do a limited edition lithograph (250 pieces only) for the event. Tell us more about the piece you created and why you chose the characters and themes you did. Were you worried that a lot of other artists would do character montages?
DR: My choice of theme and composition was made partly because of time, I had not attended as an artist before and wondered how people were getting invites, then plucked up the courage to call Lucasfilm on how I get to be part of the show and they said they would email me an invite – the only problem was by the time I called them there were only a couple of weeks before the deadline to get a print done! I wanted to do something a little more ambitious, but instead I went with the shots of the classic trio, Han, Luke and Leia. I wanted to do something a little reminiscent of the 70s posters McQuarrie designed, which is why I put the X-Wing and the Tie Fighter at the angle you see in the poster. I do want to say while it was not my original plan, I am pleased with the final poster. If there is a Celebration 5 you can bet I will be more ahead of the game for that one! As I mentioned earlier I will probably do a scene as a theme, but even if I end up doing a montage again I would want to do it in some original way rather than the usual floating heads.
GB: You’ve attended a couple of conventions (like San Diego Comic-Con and Star Wars Fan Days) in the past couple years. Is interacting with fans one of your favorite parts of the job? Do you have a favorite moment from a convention that sticks out in your mind?
DR: I have really enjoyed doing conventions over the last few years. I’m relatively new at it, but meeting with fans has been a great experience. The majority of them are very nice people and I’ve actually made a couple of friends here and there just by meeting and talking. Kids are great too, there’s just something about seeing their faces light up when you present them with a drawing of their favorite character.
GB: As well as working on Star Wars projects, you’ve had a long career working as a background artist on animated film projects. (Credits include: The Pebble and the Penguin, Anastasia, Bartok the Magnificent, Titan A.E., Fat Albert and Curious George.) Tell us about how you got involved with Don Bluth and why you enjoy working in animation.
DR: That was sort of by accident really! I had done a bit of animation in college so I already had some familiarity with the medium, but sometime later after I finished school and had been let go from a job I was talking to my animation instructor and he said he had heard Don Bluth’s studio in Dublin were looking for background artists and said "Why don’t you give it a shot?" I thought I might as well and see what happens, and after doing a test for them I got accepted. That was back in ’93, and I’m still doing the same thing today! The only difference now is I’m painting backgrounds digitally.
GB: You read out minds with the digital part of your answer. For a classically trained illustrator, how are your skills in digital artwork? Is it something you happily use as a tool to aid in your work? Have you attempted any all-digital pieces?
DR: Besides the digital backgrounds I do for animation, I have painted a few pieces of art entirely in Photoshop. If you look through my art on my site there are a few - there’s one of Anakin, another of Anakin and Obi Wan on Mustafar, plus a few concept pieces. I’ve been working on an Indiana Jones piece that’s not finished yet, but it’s drawn in pencil and painted in Photoshop. Digital art has its pros and cons though – The upside is you can keep the colors fresh and intense, the down side is it’s more difficult to make precise brush strokes, at least that’s my experience.
GB: You have a "Coming Soon" sign up on your site, Skyhook Entertainment. Is that something you’re actively working on putting together, or is it still percolating?
DR: I know, that page has been up there for ages. I am finally working on a proper site that will hopefully present my work better than how I have it now. So far it’s going well, I’m pretty excited about how it’s turning out! I should have it up fairly soon, maybe in another month.
GB: What can fans expect to see from you in the near future? Do you have any new Star Wars or animated projects on the horizon?
DR: Currently I’m doing sketch cards for Topps latest card set Star Wars Galaxy, which is the fourth set they have released in this series. I’ve had a lot of fun with these cards, as they bring me back to my first job with Topps on Star Wars Heritage, when we were drawing from all six movies…except this time we’re also allowed to include characters from the Expanded Universe!
There are some other Star Wars projects I’m either working on or will be working on later but a lot of it will depend on the powers that be who make the final decision. I also have a possible non Star Wars project in the works; I will be doing a cover for a new comic book title, but again, it’s not confirmed yet. I can’t reveal much more than that for now but I will keep you posted!
GB: Before we let you go, as someone involved in both the Star Wars and animation worlds, we’d love to know what you think of the style of animation in the new Star Wars: The Clone Wars television series (and the feature film).
DR: I love the movie, but I’m really hooked on the TV series. I love how they bring in old ideas from the movies and make them fresh. Plus the character development has been just great, which is something Star Wars fans have hoping to see with this series. The episode with Yoda and the clones was particularly memorable as it really brought back the charm of Yoda as we knew him in Empire Strikes Back. He was more serious in the prequels, which is fine and works, but seeing him address the clones on a personal level really brought me back to when he was first introduced to the saga.
GB: Finally, here's a question we're asking to everyone we interview at GalacticBinder: If you were transported into the Star Wars universe... what era, location and/or setting/situation would you want to end up in, and what's the first thing you'd do and with whom? (Keep it somewhat clean, David!)
DR: Ha, ha! Okay, well I guess Tatooine is the first place that comes to mind. I’d love to walk around Mos Eisley with Luke and Ben and then wander into the cantina (with a Wookiee bodyguard of course!) Then have Han give me a tour around the Falcon as well as a trip into hyperspace.
GB: Thanks again, David. We wish you continued success and hope to talk with you again soon.
DR: Thanks, it was a pleasure!
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