Pulse Magazine - October 2001


Marc Gabbana - Windsor's Link to Movie Magic
By Cheryl Vigh

Star Wars was expected to do well in the box office, but no one who worked on the George Lucas film had any inkling of the record-breaking success that would await its release. In fact, when effects for Star Wars were completed, the exhausted crew, many of them barely out of college, said their good-byes never expecting to return. Upon movie completion, the studio door of Industrial Light and Magic was locked. Formed to produce the special effects for Star Wars, it seemed that ILM would disappear just as most temporary motion picture units disband after a film is completed...

Already showing signs of incredible artistic talent, eleven-year-old Marc Gabbana would determine his future career path upon seeing the extraordinary special effects of Star Wars at a Toronto movie theatre in 1977. So moved by the magic before his eyes, Star Wars would ignite a desire in the young Gabbana to continue to pursue his artistic ability to someday be a part of the elite crew at ILM and create his own version of the sci-fi images that first mesmerized him on the big screen. Eventually, Gabbana's desire would be fulfilled...

Having just returned from George Lucas's "superbly equipped filmmakers' commune", the Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California earlier this summer to his suburban Windsor home accented with the unique and contrasting art works rendered by Gabbana and his equally talented partner Michelle Angers, a relaxed Marc Gabbana settles into what will likely be a work-free summer with time to enjoy their new pool. It has been a grueling year for Gabbana who has just completed back-to-back assignments for special effects mega movies Star Wars Attack of the Clones and the much-anticipated Matrix sequel, The Matrix Reloaded and Matrix 3. Pumping out hundreds of drawings a week as a concept illustrator for each of those movies was no small drain even on a mind as creative as Gabbana's. But he isn't quick to complain - he appreciates the magnitude of the work he is doing and for whom he is doing the work.

"Episode II to Matrix two and three was like a one-two punch," describes Gabbana in reference to the roll-in of one amazing opportunity to the next. "I think I've been very fortunate to pick and choose what I want. I love the way I've designed my life."

At 35, Marc Gabbana has already found himself in the elite crew of movie concept illustrators who are working on the industry's top movie projects for which many can only dream of being involved. The difference with Gabbana is that he is a freelance illustrator keeping his options open to work on a variety of projects. And with his talent, the offers are exciting and numerous.

In fact, Gabbana's extreme talents have granted him the freedom to hand-pick his next project. After completing successive work on two of the movie geniuses of special effects, one might speculate little room for further growth, however with Gabbana, anything is possible. Somehow, without a hint of arrogance, Gabbana recognizes his talents provide him with endless opportunities. In fact, it is that same confidence that caused Gabbana a few years ago to turn down what many would consider the opportunity of a lifetime for a full time position at ILM to instead maintain a life of freedom and control over work assignments through the risky business of freelancing. But question Gabbana now about the level of risk.

"The future is really bright. There is no shortage of work for me," says a confident Gabbana.

That is evidenced by the number of movie directors, magazine editors, advertising agencies, etc. who seek the talents of Marc Gabbana for their projects.

Dressed in his usual casual attire of (trademark) dark jeans and a T-shirt, Gabbana holds up a blue pencil and marker and says, "These literally are the tools of my profession." The magic begins with a basic blank sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 paper, a pencil and fine tip marker. Clearly, it is the mind behind the tools that make Gabbana's images so remarkable.

In the basement of their home is Gabbana's studio where he spends much of his time. Stone-coloured walls are decorated by the different phases of art work Gabbana has experimented with over the years and each piece shows a different version of Marc's dark and unusual creative style. The studio area is very neat with only traces of use in the tips of stained paint brushes and sharpened blue pencils. Neatly tucked away in one of many drawers is Gabbana's works in progress drawn on many different formats including napkins from bars and restaurants.

Although conversation must be kept to a minimum about his most recent projects that await release in theatres over the next few years, Gabbana enjoys discussing the designs he has created for movies that have appeared in theatres and the paintings he has drawn for his portfolio.

Gabbana's first love is painting but he admits that seeing his work on the movie screen is a thrill.

"When I first saw Spawn I thought, 'that's my drawing moving,'" he says with a smile.

For the 1997 movie adaptation of the comic book character Spawn, Gabbana was given the challenging task of redesigning the body of the title character with finite detail so the designers could build the suit. In the comic book, Spawn was drawn with black leotard and detail too minor for the silver screen. The finished product of Spawn on the big screen is derived from Gabbana's creative mind.

"My job is really the initial creative burst," says Gabbana. "To me coming up with new ideas is more fun than copying others' ideas." Gabbana was left with the comic book drawing and a comment from the director that Spawn's cape is an extension of his body and Gabbana designed the rest. His challenge was to combine those ideas with something the movie director had never seen before. Gabbana drew a number of different appearances for the title character and the director chose or narrowed the idea from there. But the shape of the skull on Spawn's belt, the scarring all over his body and the way the weapons protrude from Spawn's tendons are Gabbana's original creations.

During a chase scene, the director of Spawn instructed Gabbana to design a motorcycle that would be enveloped by Spawn's cape.

"At this point," describes Gabbana as he points to an early drawing of Spawn's motorcycle, "they say 'come up with your wildest ideas' and I'm just salivating. 'I hope you know what you're asking for because you're going to get it.'" After a few samples of motorcycle designs by Gabbana, the director asked him to create a sleeker style of motorcycle to provide a more aggressive look and after more drawings, the director made his pick. Given the time it takes to complete a movie, Gabbana does not always know the final selections made by the director until he is watching the movie on the big screen, as was the case for some scenes in Spawn.

Following Spawn, Gabbana moved on to a completely new challenge. IMAX hired Spin, a visual effects and animation company, which in turn hired Gabbana to be the production designer for IMAX's first 3D computer-generated movie CyberWorld which is a collection of existing animations created by various studios. For the 45-minute animation, Gabbana designed all of the accompanying scenes to the existing animation sequences which included environment, weapons, etc., the introduction and narration.

His first assignment was to create Phig, the guide of the futuristic animated gallery in CyberWorld. Gabbana's early drawings of Phig were a futurist combination of a grown woman with robotic features, but his idea was toned down by the hierarchy to a more human-like teen. Although Gabbana may not have the opportunity to choose the image he prefers, he accepts that final approval lies with the director.

"Everything is an evolution and that's the nice thing about this is nothing is created in stone," says Gabbana.

For the CyberWorld movie, Gabbana's impressive portfolio ended up in the hands of a Spin official through a mutual connection and a month later, Gabbana was called.

"A major portion of it is happen-stance. You can never take the chance on not showing your work to as many people as possible," he says.

Gabbana was not quite as involved with Phantom Menace Episode I as he was with CyberWorld because he was hired near the end of the pre-production stage of the Star Wars movie which meant that much of the design work was already completed. His most extensive work with Episode I involved the interior of the underwater city.

When Gabbana learned of an opening for Phantom Menace, he sent an updated portfolio to his contact and the movie's design director, Doug Chiang, who later became his supervisor. Although Gabbana never worked directly with Star Wars director/creator George Lucas, he received positive feedback from him.

"George (Lucas) wanted exotic architecture under water and this was where I could create. He liked the moods I had set up," says Gabbana. As well, Gabbana was given the opportunity to partially design the interior of the bridge of the enemy ship, the Nemodian Spaceship.

Working on Star Wars Phantom Menace Episode I was the realization of a dream for Gabbana.

"It was something I had been building up my whole life. My whole fear was George Lucas would've started working on it 10 years ago when I was still in school and would have given the opportunity to someone else," says Gabbana. His dream was further enhanced when for Star Wars Attack of the Clones, Gabbana's role increased. Design responsibilities for Attack of the Clones included the architecture for all five planets as well as spaceship and robot design. For Attack of the Clones, Gabbana spent nine months from home creating the images movie-goers will see on the big screen next May, and the final month of work at George Lucas's famed Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California. Situated in a beautiful and secluded setting, the Ranch houses many departments including licensing, Star Wars archives, recording studios for movie soundtracks and George Lucas's office.

After finishing work on the latest Star Wars film, Gabbana moved on to the special effects mastermind Matrix 2 and 3. Connections, again, led Gabbana to working on the Matrix movies. Gabbana planned to take a break from movie magic after Attack of the Clones, but the opportunity arose to work on the biggest special effects film being made and it was an offer too good to refuse. Gabbana's friend was beginning work on the Matrix movies, and through that friend Gabbana's portfolio was passed on to the production designer. Gabbana was instantly offered a position.

The professional successes and experiences Marc Gabbana has had pale in comparison to meeting the man who unknowingly helped shape Gabbana's career path. Ralph McQuarrie, the man behind the original Star Wars imagery that so impressed Gabbana created many of the characters including the famed villain Darth Vader.

"I saw Star Wars and said, 'okay, what's going on here,'" recalls a wide-eyed Gabbana. "I said, 'I want to do what he does.'" Since a chance meeting with McQuarrie several years ago, the pair have become good friends.

"When the man who first inspired you when you were 11 years old and 23 years later, you're having dinner with him and you become very close friends... he told me how proud he was. That is so inspiring," says Gabbana.

It was as though a map were laid out for Gabbana as he continued to expand the boundaries of his talent to do interesting pieces even at the high school level. He surpassed his own skill level further when he entered a four-year illustration program at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. His father's dreams of Marc being involved in architecture led him to spend a year studying it, but it wasn't long before he realized the field of study was not suitable for him.

Gabbana graduated in 1990 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from a four-year illustration program at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. About a dozen of his fellow students also pursued the movie business but unlike Gabbana, are employed to this day, by one movie company rather than freelance for many.

"There's no road map so most people don't take the risk, but I'm glad I did," he says with a sly smile. Movie concept artists Syd Mead and Ralph McQuarrie were partially the reasons why many in Gabbana's class were inspired to pursue a career in movie work.

Ironically, his path to full time freelancing for movie studios began with ILM's job offer. There was a time, when Gabbana liked the idea of a full time position at ILM, but that was before he toured the facility and realized he would rather pick and choose his projects than do what is given to him through one movie studio.

"They offered me a position, but after the tour I thought 'why would I want to work for someone else's movies. This is like a job and I don't want a job - I want an adventure'," says Gabbana. If hired full time, Gabbana would have had to discontinue outside work for ad agencies and would have no longer had the freedom to come and go as he chooses.

"The unknown is much more appealing to me," he says. This, despite the fact ILM has numerous Oscar-winning accomplishments creating special effects for some of the most memorable and highest grossing movies of all time including the Star Wars trilogy, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Back to the Future, the Star Trek Films, Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark and others. In fact, ILM has contributed to half of the top 10 most successful films of all time.

Gabbana recognizes the gamble he took by refusing the full time position at ILM but knew there would be other opportunities if ILM did not offer another movie project to Gabbana. A year had passed before ILM called Marc to work on Spawn. A meeting of chance through a mutual friend Gabbana was visiting while vacationing in San Francisco connected him to director Mark Dippe. The concept design of the title character Spawn was created in Windsor - Gabbana was given the okay to work on the project from home.

"I had always worked in the principle of being freelance and I thought why not apply it to movies."

Gabbana spent a year from his home working on both Star Wars movies The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. For security reasons, Gabbana had to work on the Matrix sequel on location in California. Besides the exotic setting, Gabbana didn't mind the temporary change of pace.

"At the core of it all, it's about being creative. For me living out of town was good for my creativity because I was in a different environment, the vibe was different," says Gabbana.

The amount of freedom Gabbana has when he works on movies depends on the input provided by the director. Star Wars director George Lucas's style of giving the creative team more freedom is atypical of movie directors who commonly prefer more control over the direction the illustrations are going to take. Gabbana says The Matrix directors Larry and Andy Wachowski are common examples of movie directors who give more directive to the concept illustrator.

While movie work is much more regimented, Gabbana's real opportunity to create from his mind happens with his acrylic paintings. So when he is not working on movie projects, he replenishes his abundantly creative soul by spending time in his studio. His primarily futurist paintings that border on the weird and abnormal, provide him the chance to explore his own imagination.

"Some of these things are wanting to come out. It's like having a dream and I show people what I dream -something not of this earth, slightly skewed from reality," explains Gabbana as he reflects on one of his creations. "That's what excites me. I don't want to paint reality, I want to paint the way I interpret the world."

The way Gabbana interprets parenthood, for example, is clearly illustrated in his painting Submarine Nursery. The painting shows a robotic child rebelling against his parents' wishes .............

Dependent on detail, his acrylic paintings take between 20 to 50 hours to complete. Similar to the movie process, Gabbana begins to draw on paper before the colour dimension is added.

"Before I invest hours on painting, there has got to be that initial spark of creativity. That's why I've got tons of bar napkins with drawings on them," he explains. When an idea strikes him, he finds whatever available material to illustrate his idea before the image in his mind disappears. "These would be hieroglyphics to you. Me, I see worlds inside these things (his thumbnail-size drawings)."

When he is at home, Gabbana finds his inspiration to draw is at its peak from early afternoon to later in the evening - morning is often spent sleeping or doing errands.

Gabbana continues to do work for advertising agencies and does movie work on the side. Movies are a greater time commitment in comparison to ad work that usually requires a week's worth of work. More recently, Gabbana has been doing work for the popular Battle Bots. Gabbana has done ad work for robot companies, covers for cd games, and magazine covers for numerous publications with genres varied from war history to heavy metal music.

Having just finished a year of movie work, Gabbana plans to take some time off from movies to return to his first love of painting.

"That's what I missed when I was doing movies was being back in the studio creating my worlds," says Gabbana. "Paintings create a mood that causes you to think and look beyond the norm."

Someday, Gabbana hopes to link his two loves - paintings and movie work - together with the creation of his own book or movie.

"All the work I've done is heading towards one ultimate goal. My goal really is to create my own world populated with my own characters and share the experiences either through the book or eventual movie. Whatever form it takes is not important to me, but the idea is to leave a legacy on the planet."

What Gabbana may not realize is he already has with every painting he completes and every movie illustration that makes it to the big screen. But in the world of a perfectionist, the work is never done. Thank goodness for those faithful fans of Marc Gabbana.