Keith Thompson is a journeyman of a production illustrator, having before worked on such films as Guillermo del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark and Pacific Rim. He’s also designed book covers, as well as characters for computer games and now, through Heavy Metal Magazine, comic books as well. This interview was originally conducted for and appeared at Mantality Magazine.
Keith, you have this otherworldly, hyper-detailed style that just cannot be taught in schools. Growing up, were you the sort of kid who was constantly sketching, or did the bug bite later in life?
It seemed to be something stitched deep into my fibre. I was drawing and painting all sorts of things as early as I can remember (well before school). When I was a kid a lot of immediate culture seemed so sterile and unimaginative that I felt compelled to draw the types of things I wished would show up in children’s books and shows. Despite that there was still a lot of really inspiring stuff I came across when I was little and I would really experience those things vividly. I would explore those experiences further in my doodling, which was essential to ensuring I wasn’t just making my own work in a vacuum.
Can you recall your very first commissioned work? For that matter, was there ever a specific breakthrough moment in your creativity, where something just clicked for you aesthetically?
I can’t recall my first commission precisely, though I started freelancing in early high school.
There were no major shifting points in my artwork; it was all a pretty gradual exploration of things. I used to do a fair bit more cartoon or comic work when I was very young (my biggest inspiration for that work was probably Sergio Aragonés) but I view that kind of work in the traditional sense of cartoon: as a preparatory drawing, though obviously still a stand alone piece of work e.g., Da Vinci’s sketches, and not separate in a sense of style or less “realistic”.
I would imagine that conceptual work could be rather competitive. Do you study trends, study what others are doing to set yourself apart, or are you of the mind to shut out anything that might indirectly influence what you do, to better stay original?
I’m much more interested in idiosyncratic approaches to conceptual work. I find individualized peculiarity in big conceptual projects more immersive and believable; it’s how a new world should feel when being explored. So I’m always hungry to see new things that are going on, but I try to avoid following any trends if I can.
Has your work for the DRAVN project in the pages of Heavy Metal been as comparable as your feature film work, in terms of research and the demand for such depth and detail?
I always approach every project the same way; I figure if I’m asked to be involved I’m going to pour as much of myself into it as is allowed.
Do you have a personal favorite from among the DRAVN cast of characters, or settings?
Probably Achilles, but I also really like Alexander’s horse head computer.
What is your creative space like? Is there certain music you like in the background, or films, or are you the sort to prefer minimal distractions?
I try to keep my space as sectioned off and self-contained as possible. Like its own little world. A fair bit of art on the walls of course. These days I draw on an old architect’s drawing board, and I have my computer set up on a pillar desk.
I do listen to music while I work. My tastes range widely and I’ll often listen to music that matches somewhat with the tone and subject I’m working on.
You are a production artist for the highly-anticipated PACIFIC RIM film. As such a film spends so very much time in post-production, when exactly did you first set to work on your part? What did your efforts entail? And how rewarding is it to see something you contributed to appear on the big screen in such a big way?
I’ll hold off on describing my work on Pacific Rim until the movie is out.
It’s rather otherworldly seeing my work appear on the screen. It gives a strange sensation where things that were once only in my imagination now exist in an almost tangible way.
Your website has a generous gallery with some very intricately designed characters, each with an elaborate story. Have you given much thought to developing your own Intellectual Properties, through sequentials or film or whatever, or are you biding your time?
My first art book will compile that world and we’ll see what happens from there. I haven’t been getting much time away from other projects so it’s been a glacially paced undertaking. It’s going to be a decade of world building though so I’ll be talking about it a lot when it gets closer to fruition.
Along with these many other projects, you also helped design Warframe, the online game. Are you much of a gamer yourself, or do you reserve gadgets more for vocation?
I play games quite a bit, as I love the creative potential in them. Up until recently games often seemed like one realm where many different weird and offbeat ideas and worlds could be created and survive through to the final product.
Which I hope would remain the case for all creative industries. I think a lot of that relies on the overwhelming talent of the individual. Like you, Keith. Thank you so much for talking with us, and we can’t wait to follow the many more strange and wonderful twists of your career.
That sort of thing waxes and wanes with massive collective movements. Being a part of it but pushing a uniqueness at every opportunity is the big quest I think.
Thanks again, Richard!