‘Man of Steel’ Illustrator/ Concept Artist Peter Rubin: The Creation of Krypton’s Dying World

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Peter Rubin

Photo gallery located at bottom of article.
© Peter Rubin, Iron Rooster Studios Inc, Respective Owners

‘Man of Steel’ hit theaters in North America June 14 with a visual spectacle and a brilliantly layered story of the “why’s”of how Superman becomes Superman.  As a person with a strong interest in ancient civilizations, Krypton’s story was incredibly appealing to me- an ancient civilization, post- technology era, that is dying.  It held the secrets to a past world that was ruined by its shortsightedness and was now a slave to its own post-era devices.  How the details of this world was created and imagined and its impact on what unfolded on screen was a story I felt needed to be told.

After months of secrecy, I finally had the chance to talk with Peter Rubin and share the story of how Krypton came into existence, artistically, in ‘Man of Steel.’  Fair warning: Peter and I are both verbose.  This is a longer interview, but it holds many secrets, a special insight into the creation of Krypton, and more.

As a 22 year veteran in the film industry, Peter is both an artist and Superman fan who has lent his impressive creative abilities to many movies such as ‘Green Lantern’, ‘Terminator 3′, ‘The Hulk’… to just name a few (this barely scratches the surface.)  While Peter’s previous work in sculpts typically involves creating concept art, in ‘Man of Steel’ he was able to flex his creative muscles and move beyond this, with a creative team, into imagining a whole new world, different from any Krypton we’ve seen or read about before.

Towards the end of the interview, we discuss [SPOILER ALERT] the ending to the movie. You will be warned again at that time, in case you do not wish to read what follows.

Peter, Welcome! It’s wonderful to have this opportunity when we can finally talk about your work on the movie!   As a veteran artist with over 22 years of film experience, how did you get hired on for the ‘Man of Steel’ project?

Aaron Haye, one of the art directors, is a friend of mine. We worked together at ILM, back in the day. He knew from social media that I had taken on digital sculpture as part of my skill set, and when they were looking for someone to do that for ‘Man of Steel,’ he thought of me.

I believe you are credited as a “concept artist” but your actual work for the movie goes beyond this.  Can you describe what kinds of work you did for the movie and where your fingerprints can be seen?  (E.g. Krypton’s design, glyph work, etc)

My credit on the film, just like all the other concept artists, is the official job designation “illustrator.” Some of us tried to get a title that falls more in line with what the technology demands of us, and the way our work is used; we took a shot at “Conceptual Designer.” It did not fly. Things like that don’t change very quickly, for good reasons, but it’s still frustrating sometimes.

My work on ‘Man of Steel’ was very different than any other job I’ve had before. Usually I’m doing concept art (not set design – that’s a different job), whether sketches, paintings or 3D, alongside a bunch of artists all essentially doing the same. But my first assignments on MoS were to create 3D digital sculpts based on existing art, collaborating as necessary with the original artists. I started by doing as exact a reproduction as I could of each piece.

That is literally every fan’s dream, to get a call to come work on a Superman movie.  Did you know from the first call it was a new Superman movie, or was there some secrecy to it?  Were you a Superman fan or fan the superhero genre?

I didn’t know, for sure, but I had an idea. Secrecy was of primary importance, and no one would mention the name of the movie to me. Of course, on my first day, I was shown around the art department’s “Fortress of Solitude,” and they couldn’t deny it at that stage. I got to read the script, which was kept under lock and key, and from that point forward I was very excited. I was on the hook.

I grew up watching the TV show, dressing up in a cape and pretending to fly, and reading the comics. Superman, Superboy, Action, World’s Finest, Batman. I gathered quite a collection while we were living in England, when I was between nine and eleven years old. My mother thought they were bad for my mind and tossed them out when we returned to the US. Wish I still had those – all the British editions, with “12p” stamped on the cover? Man. She saw her mistake eventually, and through my teens I got a lot of hardback collected editions and retrospectives. Then when Superman: The Movie came out, I was in Heaven.

In working on set design, I’m going to guess you worked with Alex McDowell.  What was the creative process like to reach the “neo-medieval” feel of Krypton? How did you all approach that living, organic feeling for an ancient yet dying society?

Alex’s vision involved a world where for centuries, the manipulation of DNA had been perfected and expanded to the point that anything could be built, any structure or technology, simply by “commanding” it to grow, in a manner of speaking. To achieve the bio-mechanical look he wanted, we weren’t to look at other artistic attempts at the same thing – no H. R. Giger allowed, for instance. Instead, we turned back to nature. The art department was full of biological specimens, dried grasses, roots, fungi, bark, and lots and lots of bones. Books of micro-photography. Then the second big source was the nineteenth century Art Nouveau movement, the design philosophy that looked to nature to guide the artist’s hand… we tried to avoid straight lines if we could, and just do flowing, natural forms.

This second source was the key, the way in for me. A shout out to Chris Strother, our art department researcher. I owe her a huge creative debt. It became my mission to make Art Nouveau part of my muscle memory, part of my permanent repertoire. I managed it pretty well – well enough that when Alex needed someone to design a couple of key pieces, the “S” glyph and the baby Kal’s rocket ship, he turned to me to do it. I wound up contributing a number of things like that, but as a fan, those two things together were a very, very big deal.

So we tackled it as an Art Nouveau assignment, knowing that every structure and machine was not just organic looking, but actually organic – once living. Maybe some of it still alive, like the aquatic robots that guard the genesis chamber. And maybe some of the animals you see, like H’Raka, Jor-El’s Warkite, are, in part, machine. Maybe. The distinctions become a bit blurred when you think about it. What is a robot when it’s made from organic materials? Fascinating ideas, true science fictional ideas.

Then add into the mix, the fact that Kryptonian society had, in this interpretation, stagnated for centuries, growing accustomed to destructive energy sources, wedded to old ways, and developing a hide-bound approach to life dictated by their micro-organically manipulative approach to everything, including a strict caste system with warrior, science and ruling genotypes that could never break out of those molds.

Practically speaking, that meant making sure every piece was properly aged. The sculptors and painters in the shop at the studio were responsible for coming up with a lot of that, using chemical reactions and heat to distress surfaces and make them look ancient. Even the “baby pod” (the nickname we gave to Kal’s star craft) we imagined as a piece of old, re-purposed technology.

Earlier in the year, some new images released that showed elements of Krypton’s design, and then the trailers revealed more detail about Krypton. I remember messaging some pictures to you, and I was gasping at how beautiful and detailed it was.  You were still “tight lipped” on all of it.  For me, I was in awe. I reverted back to that little girl feeling the “magic” of ‘Superman: The Movie.’  How do you maintain that “magic” feeling for a Superman movie, when being so involved in building the foundation of what we, as movie goers, experience on screen?

What a great question! It’s really important for me to maintain a little bit of childlike wonder. I have artist friends who will sound very cynical when they talk about this stuff, but they’re lying. They have it too, in spades (I’m talking to you, Penrod).

I’m a superhero genre fan. Always have been. As a kid I was reading comic books, but I was reading “literature” too, Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson.  So I had a love for the superhero stuff, but an appreciation for nuanced storytelling. In fact, I’d say that reading comics paved the way for the more so called “serious” lit. They complemented each other. Plus there was lots of science fiction, Heinlein and Bradbury, Sturgeon and Asimov and Clarke. Even way back in elementary school, anything that hinted at levels of feeling in a Superman comic was gold to me. I remember being quite young and coming across an issue of “Superboy” in which he swore revenge on some enemy who had hurt someone he loved, and shaking his fist at the sky, he spoke an oath on the lost planet of his birth, or some such flowery language (somebody out there will know which issue that was!). For the first time, I thought about the loss he must feel, the loneliness of him, the survivor’s guilt. I think I connected it with the Holocaust on some level, probably subconsciously. Which is no accident – it’s built into the origin story. That means that my whole life I have waited for someone to make a movie like Man of Steel, something that’s a wonderful blend of realism and a particular kind of fantasy. I would have been happy to just watch it… to have worked on it is an absolute and unexpected joy.

On a practical level, it helped that I trusted my supervisors implicitly. Alex is an amazing designer, and to work with him is a privilege and an education, even for someone my age.  And Zack “gets” the genre, really well. I knew that when I saw “Watchmen.” As a fan, I was very glad he was chosen for the job. Everybody who talks about what he was like to work with talks about his enthusiasm, his deep interest and his energy. Absolutely true, all of that.

In the process, did you work on location? Get to interact with Mr. Snyder or cast? How long was work during pre-production?

I moved with the production to Vancouver, after four months on the Warner Brothers lot. I never got to go to Chicago, though there was talk of it for a little while. There were two of us who were brought along to Canada at that time, me and Jaime Jones, a young illustrator who is just a phenomenon, an enormous talent. I interacted with Zack only a little, mostly it was working with Alex and the art directors, plus the set designers and Canadian illustrators (hi Warren and Milena!) I visited the set a few times. At the end I made a point of seeking Zack out and thanking him, and expressing my gratitude and hopes. He was very nice to me, and Deborah Snyder, the producer, was also. We were five months in Vancouver, and then it was over.

I recall, oh about a year ago- maybe a little more (I’m not good at remembering time,) a young artist out of Italy I helped on with an introduction. His name is Daniele Moretti.  I remember feeling impressed by his intuitions for the “tone” and his ability to translate his intuition into art.  He told me was so humbled and honored to have been able to “chat” with you. For other young artists who want to work in movies, maybe someday work on a Superman movie… what would be the torch of advice you could share with a future generation of artists?

I wish I could be more encouraging. The business is in a terrible state of flux right now, because of technology, and because of the utter failure of the visual effects business model. Lots of people, experienced people, are out of work. Production in California has dropped by almost 70% in the past few years, and it hasn’t picked up elsewhere in this country enough to make up the difference. Add to that the huge number of young artists and technicians being churned out of art schools and film departments by the thousands, and you get a pretty bleak picture of the future. The situation artists are going to be in is the same one that actors have had to deal with for decades: every plane that lands and bus that rolls into town is another thirty people looking for the same job you are. There just aren’t that many jobs to go around, even in the best of times. And these are not the best of times.

I’d say this, and this is advice they used to give young actors, so it’s fitting: Do it, but only if you must. Do it, only if you will die if you are forced to do anything else. Think hard about what else you might be happy doing, and if you can think of something, anything, do it. And if you still get to the point where in spite of everything you still have to eat, breathe, sleep and eat movies, then make movies, and do it with your whole heart and head. Study the basics. Learn to paint. Understand color and light and perspective. Learn to draw, learn anatomy, develop your hand and your eye. Learn how to cut a scene together, how to storyboard a sequence, how to interpret a script. Don’t just go out and learn how to push buttons, how to use the latest software package. You’ll wind up chasing your tail. Any fool can do that stuff. You’ll be employable but replaceable.

As I recall, you will be at San Diego Comic-Con this summer in a professional capacity.  Where can fans see you? 

I will be appearing on Friday at the ADG Illustrators panel. It’ll last, what, about an hour? Then we’ll be signing autographs and answering questions.

 Is any of your artwork on display currently?

I have four pieces from ‘Man of Steel’ showing at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco until September 8th, at an exhibition commemorating the 75th anniversary of Superman. And I have my portfolio available on my website: http://www.ironroosterstudios.com/index.html

Anything else you wish to add?

I’ve got a couple of small personal projects that are close to my heart. I’ve collaborated with comics writer Mariah Huehner on a limited edition collectible sculpture of her character “The Empress of the Jellies,” and we are looking to offer it as a Kickstarter item later this year. You can check that out on Facebook, if you are so inclined: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Empress-of-the-Jellies/123909581138343

Secondly, I wrote a short film near the end of my stay in Vancouver on ‘Man of Steel,’ a robot-themed science fiction story that’s small, gritty and kind of personal. It’s called “Gage.” We’re thinking Kickstarter, maybe, for that too, but we are seeking more traditional independent financing first. I’ve had enormous encouragement from everyone I’ve pitched it to so far. I have a group of ex-ILM and Disney folks who are very interested in helping me make it. We plan to do a blend of practical, in-camera FX and digital post work. It’s special, I think. You can see a sneak preview image of the main character here on my blog page: http://www.ironroosterstudios.com/roosterfeed.html

How many times have you seen ‘Man of Steel,’ and as a lifelong Superman fan, what did you think of the ending, which has become “controversial?”  I think it was powerful, emotive, and straight up awesome.  But, I also love some “good controversy.”  (laughing)

I have only seen it once, so far, but I am seeing it again tomorrow and then again next week. I have lots of friends who want to go with me.

OK, SPOILERS AHEAD.

Well, I’ve already ticked off a number of people on Facebook over this, but about the ending, I agree with you. I made the mistake of reading a very negative review the night before I went, and it just about crushed me. I was fearing that moment. But then when it came, it made so much sense in context. Look, it’s happened in the comic books, more than once, it’s been a rule of most super hero movies since 1989’s Batman that the hero kills the murderous villain at the end, and people forget that it happened in Superman II back in 1980: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=jUORL-bvwA0#at=19 Supes and Lois commit double homicide, and then laugh about it. Zod, Non and Ursa are mortals at that point in the story, and there’s no way they survive those falls, or the hypothermia that would follow even if they did.

In ‘Man of Steel,’ this is a very young Superman, and Zod is not just any villain. It isn’t just that one moment, this one terrible murder of innocents that Superman foresees and tries to stop; he’s picturing seven billion similar moments. He has to do something. He has no way of trapping Zod – no “Phantom Zone Projector” in this world, as of a few minutes ago – or stopping him from committing horrific and widespread horrors. Keep in mind that Zod, the longer he’s on Earth, under our sun, the stronger and more confident and capable he’s going to get. There’s just one way, and this is the moment Kal realizes it. If not now, then tomorrow or the next day. And how many people have to die until he finds the courage to do it? And will it be too late? Will Zod be unkillable after a day, or a month, or a year on Earth? I absolutely loved Kal-El’s reaction to it, both the realization and the act, the perception of the “great responsibility” of power, to borrow a phrase from another franchise.

I will have more coherent thoughts after my next six or eight viewings! 

Thank you to Mr. Peter Rubin for this wonderful interview and for sharing these stories!  You can follow Peter on Twitter @Peter_Rubin.  We hope to see his work in a sequel!

Daxam Concept Art- Unnamed in Zod's Flashback

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