Mark Raats is a legendary illustrator who’s experience working with Lucasfilm Ltd. on Star Wars and Indiana Jones themed projects has made him famous among fans, celebrities and George Lucas himself! More than an illustrator, Mark is a supporter of several charities including Steve Sansweet’s Rancho Obi-Wan and the many charities through the 501st Legion of which he is an honorary member.
I first noticed Mark when I discovered what came to be one of my favorite Luke Skywalker illustrations online. The picture came out during The Force Awakens, and I was amazed at how he was able to get such a perfect likeness of my favorite Star Wars character. I knew I had to see more of Mark’s work, and also – get an interview!
I was able to catch up with the busy artist and was thrilled when he agreed to interview on Star Wars Reporter!
How would you describe your style of art?
Mark: I guess it depends on the reason for doing the art in the first place. If I am working on something for the movie industry then the art tends to be illustrative. If I am working on a personal piece or for a private client, the work can sometimes be quite abstract. But I do to favour illustration because I am a great believer in good drafting practices and superior composition. I remember in the mid 1960’s, I was very influenced by Hal Foster’s gorgeous Prince Valiant strip which used to be on the back page of our Sunday Times newspaper. I saw then that Foster really knew every aspect of what he was drawing horses, men, armour, castles, women, and landscapes. Because of this, it became clear to me that I really needed to know and understand every aspect of my craft and all the details pertaining to it.
You have an extensive portfolio of different fandom art. What is it about Star Wars that inspires you?
Mark: I was serving in the military when Star Wars came out in the late 70’s and I loved the movie. Not necessarily because of Luke, Han or Leia but because of how the movie had been made. I was fascinated by the way they made the spaceships fly, the Lightsabers work, the audio design by Ben Burtt and the incredible style-design done by the fabulous Ralph McQuarrie, Joe Johnston, Ron Cobb and many others. Its not that I didn’t like the story, I really did, I simply preferred the behind the scenes work that was done. Its safe to say that every aspect of the movies inspire me – even today. The fact that George Lucas created a perfect movie for its time, the characters, the acting, the out of the box thinking and the way that the artists and craftspeople at Industrial Light and Magic raised the bar with visual effects. The fact that George Lucas took everything on his shoulders and took the risks is inspiring and all of these are, for me, constant reminders that the work I do needs to exceed all expectations if possible.
What aspects of your approach to depicting the subject of your work makes you unique and set you apart from other artists who have used the same themes as their inspiration.
Mark: This is a great question and one that is quite hard to answer simply. The reason for this is because part of an artist job, when working in this industry, is to stylistically conform with what has been done before or the art you do might not seem to fit the franchise as it should. While most serious artists would prefer to “do their own thing” then is comes to doing the art, its nearly impossible to go off on your own because, if you are working professionally in this field then you are not only answerable to the Studio Art Directors but you are also answerable to the legions of fans who live and breathe the movies. This can mean that the work you do doesn’t necessarily result in art that is as stylistically unique as you might prefer, but rather, it could result in a style that is reminiscent to that of the great movie illustrators such as Peak, Amsel, Kastel and Struzan.
That is not to say that you have to copy blindly or are prevented from finding your own voice because, even though you are working within a fairly limited, preferred style-guide it is imperative that you find some way to make your work stand out. If I am working on a movie poster than I try and find a unique way to present the art so that its fresh and new – rather than simply being a clone of what has gone before.
To give an example; The recent poster art I did for the 40th Anniversary of Star Wars: A New Hope, could easily have trodden the same paths that other poster art has walked but that was not an option in my opinion. I’ve always loved the original poster work done by Tom Jung because of its simplicity, honesty and strength of design. If you look at it, you will notice that its not jam-packed with faces, figures and the kitchen sink – as current Photoshop posters are today – its a considered and understated masterpiece that relies on emotion. It doesn’t have perfectly depicted portraits of Carrie, Mark, The Droids and Vader, it relies on compositional excellence.
I knew that there is no way that a poster of this kind would be accepted by fans these days, so I set out to create a modern poster that payed homage to the simplicity of Jung’s original. I kept the number of characters included to only three or four and controversially, I specifically focused on the open and closing chapters of the movie, not the entire story, which meant I left out Han and Chewie because they only arrive in chapter 2. In order to preserve that simplicity but to address fan feedback concerns in this regard, I added the Falcon swooping in over Luke’s home so that both Han and Chewie were included but rather represented by the Falcon as opposed to adding them both in physically.
The result was a poster that the fans have accepted as a solid return to the 70’s and its been very well received In the end I believe it was primarily the fact that I found a unique voice for the art that made it, in the minds of most of the fans, successful.
Star Wars has a very devout and outspoken fan base. Are you ever worried about what they will think of your work? How are you being received by the fans?
Mark: It’s safe to say that if you work in this field, you should always be respectful of the feelings of the fans. As I mentioned earlier, I am not a generally a disciple of the stories or characters themselves because I come from a ‘behind the scenes’ perspective. That said, I DO know that the stories and characters matter very much to the fans and I respect this deeply. Although I have not worked for them 100% of the time, I have worked for Lucasfilm and its licensees for over a period of 25 years. During that period I have learned a lot about what fans want, how fastidious they can be about the tiniest detail and I know that this has resulted in me producing art that is stronger and better.
I am also fortunate that the fans are incredibly supportive of the work I do and because of this I get hundreds of requests for private commissions, many of which are the drawings you see posted on social media these days. As I have said in previous interviews, if it wasn’t for the fans I wouldn’t have a job so, I am always worried that I do things right.
What is your favorite subject to illustrate in the Star Wars universe? Who is your favorite Star Wars character?
Mark: I prefer the original movies (4, 5 and 6) so if I am going to illustrate anything, I tend to prefer working on those stories and characters. Although this might be a current preference, I’m happy to admit that I have also enjoyed exploring the new movies such as The Force Awakens and Rogue One. And although I have not done a lot of art from either of the two new movies, it is fun to revisit the galaxy far away when I’m asked. A favorite character? While I love drawing Luke and Leia there is no question that I enjoy depicting Harrison Ford the most. I guess part of the fun about drawing and painting Harry is that I have also done official work for the Indiana Jones franchise and so visiting Han is a little like coming home.
I have drawn and painted all of these guys possibly aver a thousand times during the period I have worked within the franchises and its always a great thing to do.
What is your favorite Star Wars film? What did you think of the recent films, The Force Awakens and Rogue One?
Mark: A New Hope, or for me, “Star Wars” is my favorite followed very closely by Empire. Jedi is fun but it for me falls far behind the other two when it comes to the story in general. As far as the new movies go, I liked them very much. I don’t go to Star Wars movies to dissect the story or to see if the Trooper Armour is 100% accurate, I go to be entertained. I will always find holes in the plots but that is not why I go to see them, I simply go for the enjoyment and if I leave the theater entertained, then the movie has done its job.
Are there any characters or scenes that are harder to create than others?
Mark: The most difficult things to draw constantly are things like the Death Star, Falcon or Star Destroyers because they are so complicated and I can easily get lost in the detail which is never a good thing. When is comes to the characters, I find Carrie quite difficult to draw but Harrison I find is especially hard to get right. The legendary poster artist John Alvin said to me shortly before he passed away that he loved the way I painted Luke because for him, and many other artists, Mark Hamill is especially hard to get right. Fortunately, I don’t struggle with him so happily, its not all hard work!
Besides Star Wars, what other themes are your favorites to depict?
Mark: If we are talking about movie art then pretty much anything goes. I love my job and whilst I don’t always understand it, I do enjoy the process of discovery and of finding the correct solution to the brief. Indiana Jones is a particular favorite of mine because as mentioned earlier, having worked within that franchise as well. I did a teaser poster for the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as well as the official IMAX and Blu-Ray movie poster for Raiders of the Lost Ark and also the 30th anniversary poster for Temple of Doom. So Indy and I have a long history together.
Has any of the celebrities you depict seen your work? If so, did you receive feedback?
Mark: Pretty much most of the Star Wars and Indy actors have seen my art and I have also got to know as friends, or at least meet, many of them over the years. I was fortunate to have spent quite a lot of time with Carrie Fisher at Conventions we attended and I also knew Kenny Baker before both of them sadly passed. Although Mark Hamill has seen my work a number of times, I was surprised at Star Wars Celebration this year when his wife, Marilou, asked if I had a print of a drawing I did of Mark as a “hard-as-nails Jedi” because she wanted to give it to him. Harrison Ford has signed a couple of posters that Lucasfilm then forward on to me. So yes, most, if not all of them have seen my work at one time or another.
Outside of the Star Wars franchise, I know that people like Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, the actors from Back to the Future, Blade Runner, the Marvel franchises and Alien and others, have seen my illustrations and they have been very kind with regards their comments. For me though, the top of the tree is the guy who started all of this and that is George Lucas. George has been very good to me personally over many years and he has purchased most of the art I have ever done for his movies, for his personal art collection, as well as a cartoon I did of him as Yoda-George that I have been told he hangs in his personal space. While the others are a privilege knowing that George himself enjoys my work enough to purchase the originals from me is simply recognition of the highest order and I am very grateful to him for allowing me the privilege of playing in his sandbox.
What is next for Mark Raats? What projects are you working on?
Mark: These days I am not doing much studio art because I consider myself semi-retired. That said, there are a number of projects kicking about that I might be working on so, who knows?! I have a huge demand for private commissions which I enjoy immensely because, they are often not Star Wars or Indy requests which allows me the opportunity to explore new stories and characters which can be invigorating.
To see more art from Mark Raats, visit HERE:
Mark Raats on Youtube