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ICON 4: Elvis Mitchell Owes Me A Dollar

The best description of the Illustration Conference comes from our friend Juliette Wolf-Robin, who describes it as “the best high school reunion where you like everybody” — something I can now attest to. Perhaps it’s because they’re squirreled away in their studios under a self-imposed isolation; but when they get together, you feel the love. At last, colleagues!

I am more of an illustrator-lover than a practitioner, and am attending half out of solidarity for my wife, Karen Greenberg, and half because San Francisco boasts some of the greatest restaurants in the United States. (Yes, Chez Panisse is truly special.) But beyond that, the majority of the sessions seemed interesting.

Before the conference officially began, the organizers held their first group portfolio review: The Roadshow. Ninety-five illustrators displayed portfolios and promo pieces, side-by-side to a very crowed room of art directors, art buyers and designers. I’ve attended portfolio reviews at the Art Directors Club in New York, and have met many talented illustrators; but this was light years beyond. There was an electricity in the room. Illustrators were selling the abilities of other illustrators to potential clients and you heard many expressions of mutual admiration. Not only did they “love your work”, but they could cite specific examples.

The Roadshow was held in the ballroom of the Hotel Nikko…
featuring drinks… and entertainment.

The conference officially began with a keynote address by noted critic Elvis Mitchell, who argued that English directors (and ex-illustrators) like Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, and his brother Tony were the source of hyper-style over substance in contemporary Hollywood. He drew a historical line from the notorious Chanel No. 5 commercials (woman swimming in pool, phallic shadow of an airplane between her legs) to Blade Runner (1940’s fashion in the future) to Michael Bays’ Pearl Harbor (Franklin Roosevelt walks!). In this, he argued that perhaps the kind of flattening found in these films (historical, narrative, conceptual) communicated better — or more directly to the viewer’s emotions — than earlier styles of epic filmmaking like David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Elvis then challenged the audience to describe the story of Lawrence — even offering a dollar on the spot… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

There was some griping about the keynote: no mention of illustration, what did it mean, etc. — but the interdisciplinarian in me had no problem. Often symptoms of one cultural malaise are reflected elsewhere. Illustrators worry about the unwillingness of clients to commission a metaphorical illustration in favor of a cliched one, or even an easily-interpreted photograph. His address was appropriate and made an apt segue into the next presentation by two Dreamworks employees, Sr. Production Executive John Tarnoff and Production Designer Kendal Cronkite; who gave a blow-by-blow account of their work on the recent film Madagascar.

I admit my guilt of easily dismissing recent computer-generated features. Their intended audience needs to be the largest mass audience possible, especially since a staff of up to 300 people work for four years on the films — so, it’s not really my cup of tea. Yet, I was humbled at both the depth of intelligence and the passion these people bring to their craft; and I was frightened at the reality of their lives. Imagine working on a four-five year project where you battle creeping insecurity, the slow erosion of mediocrity after months of continual “notes” from producers and directors, and the demands of having to defend your work — every single day. These people are truly some of the most talented and devoted “creatives” around. As designers, we fall all over ourselves praising the obscure, the intellectual and the difficult; and we stand in awe of large multi-national branding campaigns. But I have a feeling that that is only a fraction of the effort behind something like Shrek.

Plus, they make kids happy.

After hours, in the bar, I went up to Elvis Mitchell and made an attempt for the dollar; offering the basic Lawrence of Arabia narrative of an English officer helping unite the various “houses” of Arabia in their effort to drive the Turks from the Arabian Peninsula. He disagreed and came back with a reference to earlier David Lean films, suggesting that Lawrence was so intertextually referential that it was more about movie making — specifically David Lean movie making. While he did congratulate me on a noble effort, he kept the dollar — which I damn well deserve.

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PUBLISHED ON Jul.08.2005 BY m. kingsley
Shahla’s comment is:

With this post you deserve, say, 300 of those bills, M.

Good read.

In case ICON4 attendees are reading, and for anyone else interested, you might want to start working on this.

On Jul.09.2005 at 12:12 AM
Rob’s comment is:

Great post, M. And by gosh, I believe you used the word 'child.' And a happy one at that. : ^ )

I think attending other 'creative' type conferences would do us all a world of good, and it certainly never hurts anyone to expand their horizons. And as usual, you've left me with much to think about.

On Jul.09.2005 at 10:54 PM
feelicks sockwl jr’s comment is:

mark - good to see you at ICON anbd hope your

arm is hammering away in the office.



when you

get a sec

its worth a dollar

and a laff

On Jul.12.2005 at 12:28 PM
Mark Kaufman’s comment is:


Nice to have met you and Karen at ICON.

Great post and overview of the conference. And a nice take on the Elvis Mitchell keynote. I must admit that I joined the groundswell of vitriol aimed at Elvis. Not so much becuse the subject matter ignored illustration totally, but because the speech was apparently a leftover from a previous appearance at the Blackpool Film Festival.

Does Elvis need to write a new presentation for every speaking engagement? No. But even the tiniest effort to tie audience concerns with a canned talk seems like "Corporate Speaker 101".

But thanks for your view on it.

On Jul.12.2005 at 08:20 PM