Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Interview with David Mattingly

Well today we have something neat. I was lucky enough to be able to meet with David Mattingly, illustrator of the Animorphs series, along with David Weber's Honor Harrington novels, Edgar Rice Burrough's Pellucidar series, and the matte paintings for numerous movies, including Tron, The Black Hole and I, Robot. I sat with Mr. Mattingly, and we discussed his start in illustration, his sources of inspiration, and what it was like working on the Animorphs books.

Adam: So how long has it been since you started working in illustration and matte paintings?
David Mattingly: I've been working in matte painting since I got out of Art Center. I was in a school in California, and I got offered the job while I was at Art Center and I actually dropped out to take the job. But I've been interested in drawing and comics all my life. I originally thought I wanted to be a comic artist but I've never been very fast, and comic artists, you know, they have to work very quickly to really make a good living at it.
Adam: You need to get a certain amount of pages done.
Mattingly: Yeah. So, as a cover artist, I'm able to spend a week or two weeks on a cover and still have it be economically viable.

Adam: So when you were first starting out, were there any particular artists that you liked to take inspiration from?
Mattingly: Yes, there's a couple of guys I always mention. There's a comic artist named Jim Steranko. Steranko...Do you know Steranko?
Adam: Yes! Yes I do.
Mattingly: And he was a really creative guy, he didn't do very much work in comics, but he also then went from comics into illustration, and he did a whole bunch of book cover illustrations that were very influential to me. Y'know, I still love his work. When I look at it, I know that his work just wildly influenced mine. His interest in technology. 
Nick Fury: Agent of Shield #4, Art by Jim Steranko

Mattingly: There's another guy, Robert McCall, who did the mural at the Air and Space Museum and he did a lot of astronomical work. I just found his work very inspirational. He didn't draw figures terribly well, but he drew everything else really well. And a lot of guys who do spaceships work very tightly and McCall worked in this very painterly fashion that was kind of at odds with the rest of the media.
Megastructure of the 21st Century, by Robert McCall

Mattingly: And this is kind of a strange one, but as a kid I also really loved Jackson Pollock and that was sort of my entrance into the world of fine art. I still like the abstract expressionists a lot. That gets me in trouble with a lot of my illustration friends. It's like “Ah! Those modern artists, they don't know what they're doing!” But I found his work very liberating and as a kid, I was like, “I can see why that's fun.” 
Jackson Pollock #3

Adam: I can definitely see what you mean. There's a funness to the texture to it, if that makes any sense.
Mattingly: I'll take that as a compliment! But yeah, Pollock's work is all about texture and all about color fields.

Adam: The work that you do, it's sort of a hybrid of photography and painting. How did you sort of come into that technique?
Mattingly: I worked traditionally for twenty years, and I probably did about eight hundred covers just with paint, because there was no digital imaging up until...I guess the first real digital imaging became available to the consider like 1994 or something like that. I mean, before that, you could buy Steve Job's NextBox, or some of those things, but they were prohibitively expensive. And as digital imaging became possible, I made a translation into it. Actually, one of the things I try and teach with digital matte painting is a lot of digital matte painting today is done with artists just literally sandwiching a whole series of photographs together. And one of the things I really emphasize with my students is that I want them to first have the concept and then understand how the image is put together. And then they can constructively use the photographs as textures, rather than, you see artwork that is put together and the perspective is wrong, and the lightening is terrible and yet they're like “Well, it looks realistic, because it's a photograph.” So a lot of what I emphasize in my class is knowing how to use photography correctly, and not use it just as a crutch, and I like to think that's what I do with my own work.

Adam: Yeah, definitely. So, you've worked on various movies like The Black Hole, Tron, The Stand, I, Robot. Can you talk a little about what it's like designing for a movie?
Mattingly: What I've always done is work as a matte artist, and matte painting is actually this technique that has been around since the very dawn of cinema. It was invented by this guy named Norman Dawn in 1904. And basically, it depends on the fact that the camera only has one eye. So if you suspend a sheet of glass in front of the camera, it doesn't know if the glass is five feet away, or a hundred feet away, or a thousand feet away. So producers at the beginning of cinema would have artists paint on glass on the set, and for instance, if you had a castle, and all you wanted to build was the ground floor of the castle, then you would have an artist paint the rest of the castle and the only restriction was that actors couldn't go behind the painting, because literally they'd disappear, their head went out there. And matte painting was used for years secretly, like when you see Gone with the Wind, people don't know that there was no complete Tara, the house that Scarlett O'Hara lives in, and everytime you see a complete shot of Tara, that's a painting. 
Set of the film "Green Dolphin Street" with matte painting by Norman Dawn, 1947

Adam: I did not know that.
Mattingly: So I got into it back before there was digital imaging, and I painted on glass in the beginning of my career. And it wasn't on glass on the set, they had advanced to the point where they put the images together in slightly different means, but it wasn't digital imaging. And now that digital imaging allows matte painting to be done in the computer, it actually allows it to be done much more than it was. When I got into it, there were probably twenty five full-time matte artists in the world, and now there are thousands. There're lots of jobs in that.

Adam: So, how about we move on to Animorphs?
Mattingly: Sure.
Adam: So, when you were working on that series, did you get to read through them? And how much of an individual book's plot were you given before you had to do the cover for it?
Mattingly: Well, this is kind of a funny story. In general, since I do science fiction covers, I read the entire book. And part of it is that I like science fiction, so it's fun to do that. But the more important the book is to a line, the less control the artist will generally have over it. And in the case of Animorphs, I mostly got just scene descriptions of exactly what they wanted. Because if a book is important to a line, and Animorphs did end up being very important to Scholastic, then the editors will cover conference everything and they want to take the artist out of the loop. I ended up reading most of the books just because, number 1: they were wildly popular and I enjoy them, but in that case, I really didn't come up with the idea. And on one hand, it's easier, you don't have to struggle through what the idea is going to be, but on the other hand, it's a little less satisfying to do a book if the editor has exactly told you, “It's going to be Rachel morphing into a bear, and you open it up and its the bear and a whole bunch of animals in an elevator.”

Adam: How much did you get to interact with Mrs. Applegate when you were working on the series?
Mattingly: Y'know, I didn't interact with her at all. (laughs) When we were doing the series, she was really nice, she sent me some Christmas gifts, and was always very complimentary about my work. But it's funny in book illustration, it's highly dependent on the fact that the author needs to understand that sometimes the book company has different goals for the cover than the author does. And the author will sometimes get very caught up in a specific scene or a specific look for a character, and if the publisher has a different vision of the book, y'know, unless you're Steven King it's not my job to say, “the author wants this on the cover,” that's one way for me not to get hired. So a lot of times, companies try to separate you from the author. And the other hand, the sad thing about that is that there are great authors, there are authors who I've done multiple covers for them and I'll email them the sketches and they are wise enough to realize that if the editor chooses not the sketch they wanted, unless there's something absolutely outrageous and incorrect about the cover, they need to sort of hold their guns and save it for another day, because the editor does need to have the final say. But the long and short of it is that I would have loved to have had more contact with Katherine. She seemed like a nice person, and seemed to have an understanding of what the covers needed to do.

Adam: When you were drawing one of the aliens in the series that there was previously no official art for, how much feedback did you get from the publishers, in order to get it to look the way they had wanted?
Mattingly: Y'know, I'm sure there was a couple rounds of corrections, but a lot of times Katherine Applegate was very precise in here descriptions. Authors have different levels of specificity as to the look of their characters, and she was very specific. So, Ax was blue, he had the sabre tail, he had the two eyes on stalks on the top of his head; It was kind of hard to get that wrong because she was so detailed in her description.

Adam: When you were working on covers with animals in them, did you have physical animals in front of you to work from sometimes, or did you just use photographic reference, how did that work?
Mattingly: No, I use photographic reference, but its very rare where you find the perfect piece of reference. I also needed to avoid, you go on google and you find a picture of a tiger and morph the character into the tiger, because you'll get sued for that. There's actually a zoo in New Jersey that I went to, where I shot a lot of photographs. It's called the SpaceFarms Zoo. I looked it up the other day, because I wondered if it was the zoo that this Matt Damon movie called I Bought a Zoo was based on, but it wasn't. But Space Farms New Jersey, it's sort of a weird private zoo. And they had bears and tigers and all kinds of stuff. And they let you in and you wander around, just like a regular zoo. So that was the source of a lot of reference for the series.

Adam: Likewise, when you were working with human models for the covers, how did you tend to work with them?
Mattingly: I'd shoot models on it, and a problem I had throughout the course of the series is that it went on for I guess five years, and the kids, kids from when they're ten to fifteen change profoundly, and I'd bring the kid in for another shoot, and he'd look like a completely different person. And Scholastic didn't want me to reuse old photographs because it would have forced them to re-pay the models, so I consistently shot new models and then attempted to make them look as close to the old models as I could, I'm not sure entirely successfully. The only model who I used throughout the series was the model for Cassie, because she was kind of a petite girl, she might have been a little older when I cast her, and she changed little enough over the course of the book that I used her consistently. She was also a wonderful model.

Adam: Is there any particular work of yours that our readers may not be familiar with that you're particularly proud of?
Mattingly: I do a series for Baen Books called the Honor Harrington series, and that series just had one of the books on the New York Times Best Seller list. It went to number three, which is the highest any of my books have ever been on. I really like this series, he's a great writer and I think I've done pretty good work on it. 
"Honor Harrington: On Basilisk Station", by David Weber, art by David Mattingly, Published by Baen Books, 1993

Mattingly: There's a book of mine, that's now out of print, that's called Alternate Views, Alternate Universes, that collects my non-digital work, and that you'd have to go on ebay or something to get a copy of that. 
"Alternate Views, Alternate Universes: The Art of David B. Mattingly" Published by Dragon's World, 1996

Mattingly: And then, I did publish this book on digital matte painting that's the textbook for my class called The Digital Matte Painting Handbook. And I'm very proud of that, because I think a lot of books don't take you step by step, and my goal on that was to make it so if you bought the book, and you know photoshop a little bit and you know maya a little bit, or even if you don't know maya at all, you'd know that you'd be able to go through this, through the very detailed step by step process and complete the projects. 
"The Digital Matte Painting Handbook" by David B. Mattingly, Published by Sybex, 2011

Adam: So, looking back on some of your older work, like Animorphs, the older Honor Harrington novels, etc, how do you feel about that in retrospect?
Mattingly: It's sort of hit or miss. The Animorphs covers, obviously I love some of them. I love, the one with Cassie morphing into a dolphin is probably my favorite. I liked the cover to #6, where he's morphing into a fly, I liked the cover to #7 where she's morphing into the bear, I loved the cover to #17 where she's morphing into a bat, a lot of this was just how good the morph looked and how good the action was. And the ones where they're morphing into aliens, #26 I think turned out great where he's morphing into a tiger, 'cause I think the action on the tiger was really nice. The one where she's morphing into the squid was pretty weird. The one where Ax is morphing into a cow, (laughs) that's just bizarre. Ah! This is one, Animorphs #29, where she's morphing into the yeerk, I think that's pretty neat. And there's another one where Cassie morphs into an alien, the Hork-Bajir, that's #34. 

Mattingly: Y'know, now that I'm looking at them again, there aren't a lot of them that I absolutely hate. (laughs) It's funny.
Adam: Always a good sign.
Mattingly: Actually, the cover for #41, to me that's kind of a weak one, and primarily it's because he's morphing into himself as an adult. I just think its kind of a boring morph. 

Adam: You like the more dramatic changes?
Mattingly: I do! Like this, #42, where she's morphing into an elephant and there's all kinds if weird, disfiguring stuff, where the tusks are emerging from her face, to me, that's what's really kind of fun about the morphs. 

Mattingly: You know, the ones that I thought were hard to do, with Tobias, like in Animorphs #43, where he's morphing into the Taxxon, it's just hard to read what's going on in that, because you're going from this bird, and all of a sudden he's turning into this many-armed creature. Yeah, same thing here, even with the bird into the dog, it's just kind of hard to read. So those were probably the more difficult ones to do. 

Mattingly: And you notice that Animorphs #54 is a steal from the Rolling Stones, it's actually the Rolling Stones' Greatest Hits cover. And that was actually a very self-conscious steal on that. 

Mattingly: So yeah, as I look back on these, I feel pretty good about 'em. You know, it was a really fun series to do. And it was the only die-cut series I was able to do, because they cut a hole in the cover, because it's expensive, and there's all these alignment problems, like sometimes you'd go to the bookstore and the hole would be cut in the wrong place. (laughs) But yeah, they were fun.
Adam: That was kind of the fun of picking them up. You'd get a new one, and you'd have to lift up the cover to see what the inside is, and then you would go and it would have the little flipbook effect on the bottom corner, that was always a big appeal.
Mattingly: Adam, did you see, I've posted all of the flipbooks on youtube?
Adam: Yes! I did, actually.
Mattingly: I did that primarily because, y'know, it's hard to see the flipbooks. I also did them in color, I mean, they were printed in black and white and it was just, I thought, if I'm doing them, I may as well do them properly. And so, I didn't think fans have ever seen them, and so I hope people will seek those out. I think they work pretty good, basically you've got five steps on the books, and the flipbooks were about 150 steps, 150 frames. And the other thing is, a flipbook actually works better if they're a little shorter, and by having me do 150 frames, it was kind of a slow action, but 150 frames on a movie on youtube works great, because you're seeing them very smoothly and quickly.

Adam: Is there any of your more recent work that you would like to talk about?
Mattingly: Sure. I can show you last couple of things I finished. Actually, this Honor Harrington cover, its called Rising Thunder. And I thought, one of the challenges of these books is the character, initially she was a spaceship captain, so she was out in the fields and she was fighting and blowing up ships and stuff and now, this is tracing the course of her career from sort of a lowly spaceship captain and now she's actually an admiral. So she's doing less, she isn't actually going out on ships and blowing up stuff. So the challenge on this was to figure out how to present her in a dynamic way without cheating the narrative, because she's not doing quite as big of things as she used to. And this book by David Weber was actually so long the publisher actually broke it up into two pieces, so I had to do two covers on this. 
"Honor Harrington: A Rising Thunder", by David Weber, art by David Mattingly, Published by Baen Books, 2012

Mattingly: So this is the part 2. And one thing I really liked about this cover is a lot of these characters are psychically bonded to tree cats. And since my wife and I are cat lovers, I had a lot of fun, and there was enough detail in the description of the particular tree cats that were bonded to these characters that I was able to do portraits of at least three of the tree cats. And the bonding, the thing that bonds these two covers together is the lightening that's on both covers. 

(Note: Part 2, titled "Shadow of Freedom" is not available in stores just yet.)

Mattingly: And let me see...I'll show you one other that I thought turned out pretty well. It's called Darkship Renegades and this is by Sarah Hoyt. So, another thing that may know is that I hide pictures of my cat, my cat Orson in all of my covers. And this cover I sort of went to town on, because there were these lumpy asteroids on it. But there's one on it, there's her nose and her eyes. 
"Darkship Renegades" by Sarah A. Hoyt, art by David Mattingly, published by Baen Books, 2012 (Can you spot the cats?)

Adam: Holy cow.
Mattingly: (laughs) And there's one... And there's one more, yeah, she's upside down, right there. So I started doing this after my cat died, and she was my favorite cat, her name was Orson. So this is a society that is hidden away inside of these asteroids, and there's also, the main character has cat eyes, so I wanted to, I don't know, I don't know if it works as a second read, but I wanted it to be sort of a secondary element on the cover. So that's a couple of the last things I've done.

Adam: Great! So, I guess we're kinda finished up here. Let me just think if I have any sort of closing thing to say...well, Animorphs was basically a big part of my formative years, and looking at your drawings, it's a part of what helped get me into illustration, so...
Mattingly: (laughs) Well, that's very flattering.
Adam: So, I just wanted to thank you so much, on everyone who is a fan of your work, and Mrs. Applegate's work, and thanks so much for having me here.
Mattingly: Well sure! It was great, it's always great to talk.

David Mattingly's webpage can be found at:
His guide to digital matte painting, the Digital Matte Painting Handbook can be found at:
And his youtube channel, which features the Animorphs flipbook animations can be found at:


  1. I love how willing this guy is to talk about everything and post his honest opinion and his work. I've run into him on Youtube several times, and he's just so friendly.

  2. This was awesome. Thanks, Adam and David!

  3. I wish he'd mentioned whose idea the Stones cover was, given the fact they seem to have the most mentions or shoutouts in the series. I wonder if KAA wanted it, or if Mattingly responded to the Rolling Stones references, or if someone just liked that cover and thought it would be a good way to incorporate all of them for the last book and still include something that looked like morphing.

  4. "And matte painting was used for years secretly, like when you see Gone with the Wind, people don't know that there was no complete Tara, the house that Scarlett O'Hara lives in, and everytime you see a complete shot of Tara, that's a painting."

    Mind blown! O.o I love learning stuff like this. As someone who has almost zero artistic ability but loves art nonetheless, it'll be fun to be able point out when matte paintings were utilized in older films.

    I believe that much of Animorph's appeal lay in their illustrations. When the books were first published, a lot of mine and my friends' excitement came from wondering what the cover/inner inserts would be like. It's interesting to hear about the process behind the artwork, and frankly, I'm not a big fan of the reprint covers (despite the cool effects).

    Great interview!

  5. Wow, this is awesome! I loved getting a little insider info on these covers - I'm a sucker for insider info, so throw that into an Animorphs setting? Heaven~

    David seems like a really nice, genuine, friendly guy. I really enjoyed this interview - he just seems like an easy person to talk to.

    How did you get an interview? That's so awesome - thanks for taking the time to do this and sharing it with us.

    And...I just...the #54's completely awesome, but...that book makes me very emotional...and I am a robot who does not feel feelings, so that's quite a feat. And...I just...I...I don't want to talk about this anymore. Is that a shiny thing I see over there? Look at that shiny thing over there. And ignore me. I'm fine. *sniff*

    Anyway, this was awesome. Thanks again for posting it, and David, if you see this, thank you for taking the time to give the fans this little inside peek :D

  6. Can anyone find Tobias' flip book animation on Mr. Mattingly's Youtube channel? I can't find it.

  7. That is so cool, that you got to speak with David Mattingly. He seems super nice, too.

  8. Wow, that's amazing. How'd you get to David Mattingly?
    Thanks for the interview and the info! This is great.

  9. You all should see if you can interview KAA and Michael Grant! They are approachable and interactive on Twitter.

  10. Wow, that was really cool seeing him mention SpaceFarms. I live in New Jersey, and my elementary school took us on field trips to SpaceFarms when I was in like first grade or something like that.