Chris Baker, also known as Fangorn is a storyboard and conceptual artist. He’s worked on Stanley Kubrick’s A.I, Eyes Wide Shut, Tim Burton’s Big Fish, The Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His most recent films are Academy award winning Gravity and Skyfall. Fangorn is a busy man and I’m lucky to have caught him at the LonCon3 Sci-Fi Convention at the Excel during his art show.
As I approach there are swarms of fans circulating around his gallery. Graphic fantasy paintings hang upon the walls, bold colours and delicate etchings attract art lovers. The detail is immense and there’s not enough time to take in everything for then I see his sculptures. They look alive, small soulful figures resting on the table top and are so very different to some of his other art works. And this sums up Fangorn, he’s multidimensional as his works have covered everything, from illustration, to painting, graphic art, sketching and sculpting. Nothing ever seems to be the same. His work is massively varied.
I finally introduce myself and he explains that he has a social gathering with Bryan Talbot and that I can do the interview there.
He says goodbye to his fans and we take a brisk walk to the London Suite for the rendezvous. Fangorn tells me that it’s been nonstop from the time the convention started. After referring to the Con schedule, he realises that his session is the next day. I ask him if he’d like a cup of tea and suggest that we sit in a communal area.
Chris is a brummie, and with 9 years of living in the Midlands myself, I know he’ll appreciate a decent brew. And it’s probably the first time he’s had the chance to grab a seat.
‘At the moment for me at this point in my life I prefer to sculpt. It’s something I’ve come into quite late in my career I’ve really only been sculpting for maybe past two or three years. There’s something about the tactile nature of working with clay that is therapeutic and very calming for the soul.’
It’s a story which I’ve heard many a time from working artists in the creative industries. Pursuing what you really love doing and taking the time to do it. Chris shares his experiences in achieving his new direction.
‘To be honest it has to do with the fact that for the past 15 years I’ve been working in the film industry and the majority is still on the computer, you just feel the need to get back to traditional art.’
‘I’ve started painting much more than I used to in oil. I’m trying to be much more expressive and I think a lot of it has to do with the rigid structure of sitting at a computer screen and not being to touch your work and not having an original in front of you. You can have a 3D sculpture on the computer but it’s still not the same.’
Just like writers and directors, every artist has their own method of working.
‘There are several different approaches to the way I treat designs because I still sketch on paper. Even though we’ll always sketch something on paper, it always ends up inside the computer at some point. You produce a design that’s like a thumbnail or a finished sketch, then you’d scan it into Photoshop, add colour and tone etc. Sometimes you can do it directly onto the computer and sketch. I don’t do that too much, I also work in 3D and use various 3D software, like Zebra, a software for creating organic sculptures.’
Working in film production means that material is passed through to different departments and goes through a multitude of processes. But how does this fare for a storyboard/conceptual artist?
‘It can be a lot of different things, it also depends on what your production designer or art director actually wants as he may just want some quick sketches or something more finished. For instance on Gravity I did a lot of sketches of spacesuits and then I went down the 3D route and started sculpting spacesuits.’
‘These days production designers and art directors like to have 3D geometry because they can be passed around the studio and can be used much more efficiently. When I sculpt a spacesuit I have someone dressed in that spacesuit and they can take that figure and drop into someone 3D model. It’s all very efficient and it’s a nice technology to use but I guess my first love is still drawing.’
The storyboard artist gets to work closely with directors much like editors. Working alongside my own storyboard artist Louis Corallo was a fun process and challenge. Fangorn tells me about his experience with directors. He seems amused by my interest and laughs before answering.
‘You’re doing a service for the film and the director or production designer. I like having a close relationship with the director as this is ultimately going to be his vision. When it comes to story boarding, the director will have a good idea of the way he wants a particular action to flow where as others really don’t know.’
‘Take an action sequence where a director may not be that well versed to action, they’re looking for a storyboard artist to compose the scene and actually block out ideas which is how we really like to work. We like it when a director really doesn’t know what he wants to do. We actually want to be left alone on our own to direct the movie. Forget about the director, we’re directing this movie!’
‘That’s what we’d like to think. Obviously they’re all different. Some are more visual than others and some are fabulous storytellers. You have to tailor your process for them.’
Fangorn has been active in the film industry since the late 90’s. He attended the Bournville School of Art in Birmingham and his roots are still very much so in the Midlands. He started off as a graphic designer and then became a freelance artist illustrating book covers, children’s books and different types of illustration. But it was a graphic novel adaptation of David Gemmell’s Legend that paved his way into the film world.
‘David sadly passed away but the book that was produced was really quite nice and a copy fell into the hands of Stanley Kubrick. He liked something about the book, but never really made it clear what he actually liked. But he just wanted me to work with him on Artificial Intelligence, sketch and come up with ideas for the movie.’
‘I got into movie making through the back door, it was one of those extremely lucky breaks. When people ask me how do I get into movies and concept art, I say to them, be very lucky! I didn’t really have to do a lot to get in. I guess I had a back catalogue of work that he liked.’
Fangorn’s time with Stanley Kubrick is fascinating as his career suddenly excelled resulting in him jumping from film to film.
‘I did a stint on Eyes Wide Shut and that ran for two years and all I did was just sketch for Stanley Kubrick. At that time A.I. was still an idea he was developing. But he went on to make Eyes Wide Shut and then sadly he passed away. When Steven Spielberg decided to actually direct A.I. himself, he gave me a call and wanted me to come over to California and work on it there. That’s really how my film career took off. After A.I. I did two more movies back to back. Time Machine and Road to Perdition.’
‘I had a break of a year when I came back to England where I didn’t really have a track record here in film but then had another lucky break with Tim Burton on Big Fish because I’d worked with Dennis Gassner who was the production designer on Road to Perdition and Tim was in England looking for a story boarder guy.’
At the risk of going off subject, I ask Fangorn about his time with Stanley Kubrick. He pauses and smiles wonderingly.
‘For me the best way to describe Stanley is succinct. He was a very direct person. We met only a few times and I would sketch during the day time and then fax material through at the end of the day and then Stanley would give me a call and we’d have a chat about what I’d done and he would say yes, no or go ahead.’
‘He didn’t have an idea at the beginning of what he really wanted for A.I. Having me sketch day to day and just produce as many different designs as possible helped him come up with some kind of vision. But the great thing about it is I had a lot of input and was given the freedom to design stuff the way I wanted, but then Stanley would come along and start suggesting things, so we had a really good working relationship but we didn’t talk a great deal. It was all about the visuals.’
‘People obviously hear stories about Stanley Kubrick is like this, was like that, but for me he was one of the best directors that I’ve ever worked with because of his directness and the way he pushed me to produce. Even when he could be negative, was a good thing because you don’t want someone to say everything you do is fabulous because in the end you get suspicious, everything can’t be that good! Something’s got to be bad.’
Tim Burton is another director and fellow artist Fangorn has made films with. How do two very graphic and conceptual artists make art together?
‘As an artist and Tim is an artist, you feel even more put under pressure because you feel why is Tim bothering to hire me when he can do it himself, because he’s so good and so talented at what he does, but he’s just a lovely guy to work with. You can’t sum up Tim Burton in one sentence.’
With Fangorn’s zest for practical artistry how does he keep up with an industry that depends on changing digital technologies?
‘I’ve used most of the technology that’s been used in film these days and I come from a traditional background and there are artists in film who have never come from that traditional background, they’ve been bought up on Photoshop, Zebra and they use that software the way I would’ve used a pencil or a paintbrush.’
‘I personally have my own style and I’m happy with that. Do I feel like I’m being left behind? I don’t consider myself a concept artist or a storyboard artist? I’m an artist who just happens to have been fortunate enough to be asked to work on these films. If someone asks me to work on a film I’ll do it. If they don’t ask me, I won’t. I’ll go away and paint and sculpt or whatever.’
‘I don’t mind producing a sketch and someone else does a beautiful rendering of that. I’m not protective and you can’t be anyway because in the film industry, your work is going to get passed around and it could be tweaked in various ways. You can’t be precious it’s a collaborative industry. So being left behind maybe but I don’t really mind. It’s just something that happens.’
We touch on the low pay/work experience culture that is on the rise and perhaps the only way of getting into the film industry.
‘I think to get your foot in the door you may have to pay your dues. But if you’re very good, there’s a chance you can have an interesting career. If not in films then computer games because the difference between producing concept art for computer games is very little. The cross over between films and computer games is almost invisible and the budget for computer games are incredible and the profits are mind blowing.’
‘It’s an adventure for people starting out. All I’d say is good luck to them!’
There is much talk in the recent years of black people finding it hard to break into the film industry. It’s a known fact, although things are now changing. Take Idris Elba, Sophie Okonedo, Adrian Lester, Naomie Harris and many more. Fangorn tells me his story.
‘I’ve done twenty films now and you don’t see many black people working in film but here’s the thing, certainly in L.A most of the best storyboard artists are black. Peter Ramsey, Michael Jackson, Eric Ramsey, two other guys and myself.’
‘It’s a very small industry anyway so you’re not going to have a fair quota of minorities. It’s a huge subject in the entertainment industry because it goes beyond behind the scenes, technicians and actors. My biggest issue is with actors. There aren’t enough black actors in leading roles or black women in leading roles unless it’s been an all black show. But within the actual technical side, I can’t really make too much of a comment.’
‘It’s difficult for anyone getting into the industry. Certainly here in the UK back in the 50’s and 60’s you would never have seen any black people in industry. Look how few women directors there are. I had a conversation with someone a while ago. A lot of female directors go onto being editors, there are a lot of successful female editors, but I guess things are changing and it will over time.’
‘You have people like Steve McQueen who’s been extremely successful. I’m sure we’ll see a black female director win a Bafta or an Oscar or something.’
I express my personal goals in becoming a film director.
‘Well it’ll take time and things aren’t going to happen immediately. I want to go onto direct myself at some point but I think my failure to direct will have nothing to do with the colour of my skin. If you want to make a movie now, you can, the technology is there it’s your distribution that’s the issue. And I guess your subject matter. But there’s no reason for anyone not to make a movie of some kind. Things will change and they are changing. For me I just want to see some better movies!’
Chris makes a very valid point, something in which I’ve noticed when attending conventions and festivals. Why aren’t there many people from ethnic backgrounds?
‘This convention is a good example of the colour thing. Science fiction conventions are probably the most open place you could possibly think for people to congregate. Anyone is welcome at Sci-Fi conventions but there are very few black people. You can be gay, transgender and nobody cares. But I’ve only ever seen a handful of black people at conventions and it’s been like that for years and I’ve been coming to conventions for 40 odd years. I guess black people don’t come to conventions. It’s as simple as that!’
We both laugh as Fangorn continues.
‘The only time I saw more than one black person other than myself was my family! So it’s not an issue, the issue is trying to get the people to come in.’
Chris Baker is an effervescent individual with an acute attention to detail. He knows exactly what he wants even from the many profile pictures we took for this blog post. He’s patient but direct, open but stern. He is a prolific artist and his vivid work takes you on diverse journeys of both awe and adventure.
Thank you for your time Fangorn, Chris Baker.
You can check out Fangorn’s website here.