Friday, 15 April 2016

Interview with Armen Chakmakian

Armen Chakmakian is an Armenian-American musician, composer, recording artist, and producer. A native of Glendale, California where he still resides, Armen attended the Berklee College of Music, UCLA, and USC. 

His professional recording career began in 1991 when he joined the GRAMMY® Award-winning band, Shadowfax as their keyboardist. It was his unique style of World Fusion blending indigenous Armenian and Arabic influences with contemporary jazz, and world elements that helped win him the prestigious job. A prolific composer, Armen began incorporating his signature style when he co-wrote the music for Esperanto. This led to him receiving his own GRAMMY® AWARD nomination when the Shadowfax production was nominated for Best New Age Album of 1992. For the next four years, he co-wrote, recorded and toured with the band as they produced an impressive body of work including the albums Magic Theater, Shadowfax Live and a 90-minute concert video of the Live album. 

Armen launched an indie label, TruArt Records in 1998 releasing his first solo album, Ceremonies to rave reviews. The album debuted #1 on the New Age/World radio charts (NAV Top 50) and received airplay on more than 600 stations worldwide. Two tracks from Ceremonies entitled Gypsy Rain and Distant Lands were featured on the European compilation CD series, Buddha-Bar, and Buddha-Bar IV, which were released in 2000 and 2002, respectively. To date, they have sold more than 700,000 units.

In 2004, the label released Armen’s second solo album, Caravans, a 12-track production melding the artist’s unique, contemporary jazz compositions with exotic world percussion and textures. Like its predecessor, this collection received dozens of glowing reviews continuing to build TruArts’ worldwide audience.

In addition to his solo career and time with Shadowfax, Armen has contributed to a variety of other productions including Cirque du Soleil’s flagship show, Saltimbanco. He has continued to experiment with various genres leading him to a new body of work composing source music and library music for television. In this area alone he has amassed more than 200 credits since entering the field.

1. Tell us about your inspiration and development as a musician.

I’m still developing!

I loved music as far back as I could remember.  I always wanted a drum set when I was a kid…in preschool.  So for my birthday one year, my dad bought me a cheap drumkit from Sears.  I was elated! The family gathered around as I sat on the stool and I started singing “Onward Christian Soldier” while bangin’ out the rhythm on the toms.  I got about 10 seconds into the tune before all the paper drumheads were torn and that was the end of my career as a drummer.  I had 2 older brothers; one a big band jazz fan and saxophonist/clarinetist; the other a lover of all things late 60’s/early 70’s rock. My parents always had music on the turntable - Armenian pop, Arabic pop, Armenian choir and some classical.  So I was getting it from all sides.  When I was 7 years old, my parents moved us into a new home, which happened to be next door to a woman who had kids coming and going.  I sat on the wall of our driveway and watched this happening for a couple of days before I finally walked over there, knocked on her door and told her I noticed all the kids coming and going and asked her what’s going on.  She invited me in, sat me down at a piano, next to her on a stool, and started to play.  That was the first time I’d been in the presence of a pianist and a musician of that caliber.  Nell Sansom Brown would be my piano teacher for the next 10 years.

A few years later my brother, the big band fan, started taking me to the USO gatherings where he’d sit in with musicians who had played with most of the famous big band leaders.  It was pretty incredible.  Then he taught me how to read basic jazz chord charts for some of those tunes and at around 10 years old we’d visited a couple of old-folks homes and played, as a duo, songs that were familiar to them.  I remember how they lit up and that felt amazing – to see all the smiles.  Age 12, my Uncle decided it’s time to start a family band playing some 50s tunes, Armenian pop songs, and some continental pop thrown in for good measure.  That’s when I started “gigging” and getting paid.  Picnics, Armenian weddings, birthday parties.  It was a blast to play with my cousins, brother, and uncle!  I was getting turned on to a lot of music from friends at the time too – Styx, Queen, Beatles…  then I heard Van Halen, the hair on my arms was standing on end. I’d never heard anything like that before.  I also loved Randy Rhoads who was the guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne’s first two solo albums.  I listened every weekend to the Dr. Dimento show and discovered Frank Zappa, which was the first time music made me laugh.  There was some 80s pop I loved too, but I was never really into lyrics.  I was too busy honing in on the groove and melody and what the instruments were doing to create that groove.  I was more into music than the piano or keyboards as an instrument so when my friend’s father took us to see Return to Forever – it blew my mind!

But I still felt like a drummer trapped in a keyboardist’s body, so I bought a drumset.  I was 15 and joined the high school marching band as a drummer.  Something very important happened to me in that band.  Three of the seniors turned me on to jazz, progressive rock, and music that you couldn’t really categorize.  Over the next month or so, I discovered Chick Corea as a solo artist, Peter Gabriel, Genesis, U.K., Michael Oldfield and Tubular Bells, Walter/Wendy Carlos, Tangerine Dream, King Crimson, Bill Bruford’s solo stuff, Alan Holdsworth, Mark Isham, anything Terry Bozzio played on and a bunch of other recording artists.  Those were the days where I’d go to a friend’s house and for hours, we’d sit on the floor.  I’d have the vinyl album cover in my hand for one record, and we’d listen and talk about what we were hearing. My friends would explain how the sounds were created, point out different things to pay attention to, and the time would fly by.  Those days were really important – extremely important to me and that’s when I started writing my own music on the piano.

My senior year of high school I took an analog synthesizer programming class at the local college and learned to program synthesizers and sequencers (1984), which was also huge.  Shortly after, I studied improvisation on the piano with Chuck Wild who later became the artist behind the Liquid Mind albums.  Chuck gave me great confidence because I never felt like I completely fit into a neat and tidy category as a musician or artist.  “What do you call that music you’re writing?”  I don’t know.  I was fortunate enough to always have musicians around me and would start my own projects.  Eventually, I met Chuck Greenberg and was part of Shadowfax from 1991-1995 until his passing.  What I admired most about my music heroes and Shadowfax is that they all had something unique about them… a style that was theirs and theirs alone. I wanted that and during my time with Shadowfax, I enrolled in a History of Armenian music class at USC and was introduced to hours and hours of music I’d never heard before.  I’d transcribe as much as I could and let it soak in…much of it was familiar to me already and then I would just improvise and play freely on the piano, recording everything I played.  Those improvisations and recordings eventually turned into my first solo album, “Ceremonies.”

2. Are you a Tolkien fan?

No.  I never gravitated towards that type of fantasy.  A part of me wishes I was because I see a lot of people who are total fanatics. I’m more of a sci-fi fan but I like sci-fi that can back up the technology – even if it’s technobabble that’s impossible.  Most of all I love biographies.  I love information.  I like reading a well-written manual too!

Shadowfax performing at CD101's "Jazz at the World Trade Center."

3. Tell us about Shadowfax.

If you asked me back then to name any band in the world that I’d like to be a part of, I would’ve told you Peter Gabriel or Shadowfax.  But Peter Gabriel isn’t a band so I’d have to throw that idea out.  As their keyboardist, I had free reign as far as sound design, coming up with parts, introducing music to the band, it was wide open.  There were no rules.  It was a great hang, I learned a lot about music, food, the music business and how to read a contract and understand every single word.  It was a band of brothers, a family, a school (I got schooled a couple of times!), and one of the highlights of my life.

4. Tell us about your label and studio albums.  

TruArt Records.  I started the label after going to 36 labels with “Ceremonies” and hearing, “That sounds great! What kind of music do you call it?”  I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that almost everyone I talked to at all the labels asked me the same question.   Instead of saying “I don’t know” or “Good music” or “Music that I think doesn’t suck”, I started asking back – “What would you call it?” Then I’d hear, “I don’t know.”  Some of the people told me if I could come up with one word to describe my music, they might be able to “do something with it.”  I thought that’s why labels had marketing departments.

I called my former piano teacher and friend Chuck Wild, who I talked about earlier in the interview and asked him how he ended up releasing his own albums on his own label.  He already had success with his Liquid Mind albums and has a very organized and brilliant business mind.  He introduced me to Suzanne Doucet who I brought on as a consultant and we ended up releasing “Ceremonies” tied at #1 on the radio with an Anne Dudley album in 1998 and had a track, “Gypsy Rain” -two tracks licensed by the Buddha-Bar series.  At that point, it was 90% business and 10% music, which was frustrating.  It was a great experience.  I loved working with the people I had brought on, and most of the buyers at the stores, but I didn’t like that it was cutting into my music time.  So it was 6 years before I had released “Caravans.”  The business model in the music biz had completely changed and Tower Records, which was my bread and butter was going to file bankruptcy in two years unbeknownst to me.  So the label is “inactive” at the moment while I have a career writing music for television.

5. Why did you choose to create these albums, and what do you hope to give to your listeners? 

It’s fun for me to turn my friends on to something that makes them smile or feel good.  Writing this music, arranging it, getting the musicians together to record, mixing, mastering – I love the entire process and felt that I had something to offer that was uniquely my own.  The hope was to turn people on to something that they’d enjoy listening to that was something they hadn’t heard before and have them feel good about it.  It’s the same reason I enjoy cooking for people or making someone laugh.  It comes from the same place.

6. Is there an underlying theme or message in your work?

Beauty.  “Art” has different meanings to different people.  There are the “I’m going to paint a glacier red” artists or the “I’m going to dress up a mannequin in an NYPD uniform, turn it upside down and sell it for $90,000” artists – these are real projects.  Whether they qualify as art or not is not for me to say.  I’m moved by things that I find to be beautiful.  Seeing or hearing something beautiful makes me feel great. It can be soothing, exciting, healing – that’s what I look for in art and that’s what I want to express.  I’m hoping the listener finds something beautiful and healing in my music.  I write about that in my liner notes.  I’m big on liner notes, which is an endangered species now.  There’s an anecdote about every piece I write…another way for me to connect with the listener.

7. How would you describe traditional Armenian music to anyone who has not had the pleasure of  listening to it? 

There’s a long timeline of music that came from the area well beyond what are now the borders of this tiny country.  Once the largest country in that area, those borders have been eroded a great deal.  Verbally, describing the music to a layman is difficult for me to really nail.  The music that I have heard and the notation I’ve read – it’s very simple music.  It comes so much from the heart… a pouring out of emotions at times.  Some of it has a sense of humor or can even sound a bit mischievous. Now that I think about it, I’m describing the overall personality of the Armenian people.  Much of it was written for dance, in odd time signatures or no time signature at all.  Originally there were no harmonies with multiple instruments.  It was all unison until it was influenced by European music and it continued to evolve.  There’s the instrument that Peter Gabriel introduced to the world when he composed his score for the film, “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988 – the duduk.  He talked about this Armenian instrument.  It’s kind of become the “poster boy” instrument for Armenian music to the rest of the world.  It has a gorgeous sound in the right hands.

8. Tell us about your collaborations and the part your Armenian heritage plays in your work.
When I was taking the History of Armenian music class at USC, and really diving into it, my teacher, Lucina Agbabian-Hubbard asked me if I’d like to meet Djivan Gasparyan, the duduk player.  He’s also an amazing singer and plays other wind and brass instruments.  Of course, I said yes.  I picked him up from the airport, stopped at a dry cleaners shop to drop off a pair of his pants, then went right to my studio and we laid down the tracks for “Distant Lands.”  I had the rhythm track all laid down, and he played a collage of existing melodies from other Armenian songs.  That’s one of his specialties.  He can hear a rhythm track and start playing from beginning to end playing melodies from maybe 3 to 6 different existing pieces to create this new cohesive melody.  It’s pretty amazing to hear him do it.  Parts of the melodies might be improvisations.  But in my recordings, everything I grew up listening to comes out somehow and that includes the old Armenian choral, pop, Arabic popular music and everything else that’s in that cocktail of a thousand songs that is somewhere buried deep inside of my brain.

9. Tell us about the production of your Ceremonies video.  

Albert Kodagolian, the director and me were part of a group of mutual friends.  He approached me one day and said, “You need a video, and I’m the one to make it for you.”  I said ok.  We talked a little bit about it and I told him, I want to make something with an old man, a pomegranate, a baby and a good looking couple.  So we met at a later time and he had it all storyboarded - all, minus the baby, and he suggested we shoot it in the desert because of the lighting and also we wouldn’t have to pay for lighting.  I loved his ideas, so I recruit the band and a friend who I know will look good in the video and we meet out in the desert – El Mirage lake bed in California.  Albert had a van that he would use for most of the shots involving camera movement.  He would be hanging out of the van while there was one person inside the van holding on to his belt and another person holding open the door so he wouldn’t get decapitated.  It was crazy!  There were people riding motorcycles, ATVs, and other cars, so he took these incredible shots where it looked like we were all out there alone in the desert.  By the time he got to shooting the band, the sun had just set, and we didn’t have great lighting, but he used that to his advantage as you’ll see when you watch the video.  The old man in the video was Albert’s grandfather.  He was the sweetest man, and was thanking everyone and was expressing his joy for having met us all and working with us.  The following day, Albert told me that his grandfather remembered none of it because of his Alzheimers disease.  He’s my favorite part of that entire video.  Albert proved correct telling me weeks earlier that he was the one who should make the video for me.

10. Do you have plans to release more studio albums?  

I think about it but have mixed feelings. I have enough music for another four albums.  Since the music biz was turned on its head in the mid-2000s, I don’t see a way to do it without making it an expensive hobby for myself.  I’d love to release more music.  The music part of it is the easy part; having to handle the business part of it as well, that’s just no fun for me anymore.

11. Tell us about your work with film and television.  

I received two phone calls in 2004 that changed the course of my music career.  They were both for television shows.  One call was to license a track from Ceremonies, “Echoes of a Prayer” for the show “Malcolm in the Middle.”  The second call was from a production company asking if I’d be interested in writing music cues for their television shows.  I’ve been doing it ever since.  I’m writing music I would’ve never have been able to produce on one of my albums, or anyone else’s for that matter.  The variety of genres I’m asked to compose is endless.  I’ve been doing it for about 12 years now and it’s a blast!

12. What do you find most rewarding in the creative process?

The beginning steps are the most fun, but finishing up a work or project is the most rewarding.  I had a ritual when I’d finish any album where I’d take the finished album, get into my car late at night and take a drive down to the beach while listening to it beginning to end.

Doheny Blues Festival, 2008.

13. What do you find most challenging in the creative process, and how do you overcome it?  

Different projects have different speed bumps or different walls I might seem to come up against.  The key is to just not stop.  To keep on it until there’s a breakthrough.  Sometimes, the challenging part is to get everyone in the same room if that’s what’s called for.  Other times, it might be all the editing involved.  Staying up late nights can be another.  It varies quite a bit for me.

14. What have you done to promote and market your music, and what advice would you give to other artists?  

If you asked me this back in the late 90s, I would’ve had brilliant advice.  But now I wouldn’t know how valuable my advice would be in this climate of the music business.  I don’t take the time to actively promote or market my music from my albums anymore.  The advice I’d give to other artists is to simply do your thing.  Create what you want to create and what satisfies you.  Try to find what’s unique about what you do and develop that.

15. Who, do you imagine, would be your ideal listener?

Very simply, my ideal listener would be someone who enjoys the music.  Of course, as the artist, I would like a listener who would drop everything and give the music their full attention.  They’d notice every nuance and be curious about things that they hear in the music and aren’t sure what they are.  Then, they’ll call (do people call anymore?) all of their friends raving about it and post flyers in the neighborhood pledging their allegiance to it!  I once met a friend of a friend who spoke with me about the keyboard textures and sound design on the record.  It felt good to have that part of my creation noticed since I rarely use preset sounds.  I like to make my own synth patches.

16. What are your interests outside of music? 

I love sports, cooking, and tea.  I played sports growing up and have two older brothers that were always coaching me.  One of my earliest memories was my father taking me to a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game.  He knew the game well enough to understand what’s going on and I remember him jumping out of his seat when our team scored. He turned to the guy next to him and they shook hands.  I have some really great sports memories.  As far as cooking, I have a handful of some recipes I like to make but mostly like to try out new recipes and cooking for friends.  Tea:  I was really enamored by tea around 2008 when in one week I had an incredible Japanese Sencha tea and a Chinese ginseng oolong.  I didn’t know tea could be that amazing, and I’ve been in love ever since.  Dragonwell Lung Ching is my favorite.  It’s a green tea, I believe the most popular in China.  And, if I could pique your interest with this thought:  If you make green tea and it’s bitter, which was my experience for many years, you’re either (1) brewing it too hot (about 175 °F for green tea), (2) steeping it too long (3 gms for about 30-45 seconds for the first brew), or (3) using the dust that fell on the floor from the higher quality tea.

17. Where can we find you and your work? 

My albums could be found here:
CD Baby

Examples of my tv music can be heard at:
Armen TV

Ceremonies Video

Neda’s Calling Video Tribute
Read about it here:
Armen TV
Armen TV

Souls and Saints Video

Social Media:

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Interview with Alan Dean Foster

Alan Dean Foster is an American writer known primarily for his work in fantasy and science fiction. Born in New York City in 1946, he was raised in Los Angeles and earned a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science and a Master of Fine Arts in Cinema from UCLA.

Foster's published oeurve includes more than 100 books featuring excursions into hard science-fiction, fantasy, horror, detective, western, historical, and contemporary fiction. He has also written numerous non-fiction articles on film, science, and scuba diving, as well as having produced the novel versions of many films, including such well-known productions as Star Wars (Foster was the ghostwriter of the original novelization of Star Wars, which had been credited solely to George Lucas), the first three Alien films, Alien Nation, The Chronicles of Riddick, Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation, Transformers, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. His latest publications include the fantasy novel Oshenerth, and the young adult fantasy novel The Deavys. Other works include scripts for talking records, radio, computer games, and the story for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. His novel Shadowkeep was the first ever book adaptation of an original computer game. 

In addition to publications in English his work has been translated into more than fifty languages and has won awards in Spain and Russia. His novel Cyber Way won the Southwest Book Award for Fiction in 1990, the first work of science-fiction ever to do so. He is also the recipient of the ‘Faust’ - the IAMTW Lifetime Achievement Award.

Foster's love of the far-away and exotic has led him to travel extensively. Besides traveling he enjoys listening to both classical music and heavy metal. Other pastimes include basketball, hiking, body surfing, and scuba diving. In his age and weight class he is a current world and Eurasian champion in power-lifting (bench press). He studied karate with brothers Aaron and Chuck Norris. He has taught screenwriting, literature, and film history at UCLA and Los Angeles City College as well as having lectured at universities and conferences around the world. A member of the Science-Fiction Writers of America, the Author's Guild of America, and the Writer's Guild of America, he also spent two years serving on the Planning and Zoning Commission of his home town of Prescott, Arizona. Foster's correspondence and manuscripts are in the Special Collection of the Hayden Library of Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona.


  1. What aspects of your childhood inspired your prolific writing career? 
When I was four, my parents bought me a set of small paperback books called The Golden Nature Guides.  One each for such subjects as birds, insects, etc.  They began a lifelong fascination with the natural world, and with science.  A year later I received subscriptions to a dozen or so comic books.  These came in the mail.  I learned how to read from them, especially from the great comics done by Carl Barks (Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck).  Otherwise, I had a very normal childhood.

  1. Tell us about any childhood heroes. 
I didn’t really have any, except in books.  My parents had an old copy of one of the books by the famous world traveler Richard Halliburton, now little-read.  I poured over his tales and wanted to be like him. 

  1. How did your career begin? 
August Derleth bought a long Lovecraftian letter I wrote to him, just for fun.  He ended up publishing it, as a short story, in his semi-annual magazine The Arkham Collector.  Subsequent to that, John W. Campbell bought a short, With Friends Like These, that appeared in the June, 1971 issue of Analog magazine.  Those were my first professional sales.


  1. Tell us about your Humanx Commonwealth Universe. 
It started off as my first novel, The Tar-Aiym Krang.  At that time I had no idea if the book would sell.  When Betty Ballantine asked for a sequel, I ended up writing something a bit different, Bloodhype.  By the time I was asked for a third novel, which became Icerigger but which did not involve the character of Flinx, it was easier to utilize the existing background from the first two books instead of inventing an entirely new one.  At that point, the notion of writing other books in the series on a regular basis became viable.

The Humanx Commonwealth is a political and social amalgamation between two species: ours, and the insectoid Thranx.  As someone who has always rooted for the underdog, I thought it would be appropriate if, when we do go out to the stars, the intelligent species with whom we most readily get along turns out to look like creatures we have battled throughout our entire existence: namely, bugs.  The Thranx are not terrestrial insects, of course.  It’s a matter of convergent evolution.


  1. You have either novelised or created several of the most iconic stories in science fiction, including Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Terminator, Transformers and The Thing. How have you developed and maintained your career for so many decades? 
As far as the novelizations are concerned, it became a matter of doing something well that others involved with similar projects also wished to see done well.  In other words, you acquire a reputation for being good at something. 

As to my original work, I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that I write in many different genres.  Those who enjoy my fantasy may not care for science fiction, and vice versa.  Those who read novelizations may not care for original fiction.  And so on.  When you go to a restaurant you may not like everything on the menu, but if the menu is large and the food is decent, you’ll find yourself returning.

  1. Tell us about your working regime. What does it take to produce such a great volume of exceptional work? 
I get up, take care of the house and the critters, go out to my study, and read the news from all around the world.  I go through my email personally.  Then I write.  Which means I stare at the computer, or my surroundings, or the scenery outside, until something forms in my mind, which I then set down in print.  As to volume, you have to work at it every day.  Doesn’t matter if it’s prose, painting, sculpture, music…do a little every day and you’d be surprised how much you can produce.

It helps that I am a fast typist, but these days you can dictate without having to type.


  1. I believe your love of adventure, travel, and exotic locations has been influential in your work. Tell us about some of the places you have visited that inspired your fictional world-building. 
Sometimes you get just a character, or a location, from traveling.  Sometimes, as with Into the Out Of (Tanzania) or Sagramanda (Northern India), you get an entire novel.   Bits and pieces end up welded together, depending on the storyline.  Interlopers utilizes locations I’ve visited in Peru, Papua New Guinea, and Australia.  The second and third books of the Tipping Point trilogy are set in South Africa and Namibia, respectively.

  1. Tell us about any underlying themes or messages in your work. 
As has been noted, ecology and the state of the natural world are of great importance to me.  Books like Midworld and Drowning World are good examples.  But I don’t preach.  It’s better to write a popular novel that reaches a couple of hundred thousand readers and makes one point than to write a critically acclaimed novel that reaches a hundred readers and makes dozens of points.

  1. Is there an existing film or story you would particularly love to novelize? 
The 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad.

  1. Tell us about your Spellsinger series. 
When I attempt something I’ve never done before, I’ll only do it if I can be different.  Having never written a fantasy novel prior to Spellsinger, I made a conscious decision not to do aged wizards with long white beards, princesses in distress, noble heroes waving magic swords: I wanted to do something different.  And there was that influence of Carl Barks and his anthropomophosized animals.  It all came together very pleasantly.

  1. What do you find most rewarding in the creative process? 
When the characters and the story take over, and write themselves on autopilot.  When I can sit back and just let them do the heavy lifting for me.  In order for that to work, your characters have to be real and fully-rounded.


  1. What do you find most challenging in the creative process, and how do you overcome it?
Sometimes you just don’t feel like writing.  It’s as if the mechanical process itself is holding you back.  When that happens, you just have to push on.  Bad writing is still writing, but it gets you from page 10 to page 15.  You can go back and fix it, revise, later.

  1. Tell us about your experience filming Great White Sharks in Australia. 
That was in 1991, with Rodney Fox.  Rodney is the world’s most famous great white shark attack survivor, and has dedicated his life to their protection.  The water was very cold, so you’re heavily weighted, and in a shark cage you don’t wear fins.  So if you have to get out, you can’t swim.  You just sink.  So you’re always wondering if the cage is going to stay afloat.  But once past that, it’s the closest thing to hanging with dinosaurs you can do today.  They’re such magnificent animals.  You can reach out between the bars and touch them as they swim past.  Given the opportunity to free swim with them now, I’d do it in a moment.  Sharks are really just big dogs.  They’re curious, and they check you out, but you’re not their natural prey, and they’re more wary than aggressive.


  1. Tell us about your collection of animals. 
All of our animals are rescued animals.  Current population is two dogs and eight cats.  I did once have a Columbian boa.  Very nice pet.  Doesn’t bark, doesn’t scratch, doesn’t  have to be walked, and easy to clean up after. 

  1. Where can we find more official information about you and your work?  Also, one of my publishers, Open Road Media, maintains a fannish Facebook page for me.  

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Interview with Alex Saberi

Alex Saberi is a National Geographic photographer from London, England. He began photography as a hobby, mainly taking photographs of Richmond Park, the largest of London's Royal Parks. Only recently, he turned this hobby into a profession and has published a photo book of the park, titled Richmond Park.

Alex has appeared in many digital camera magazines and publications, and has won several photography competitions, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Wildlife Competition, as well as several worldwide online competitions. He placed second in Landscape Photographer of the Year with his photograph, One Man and His Dog, and appeared several times in both the British Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Landscape Photographer of the Year books.

With his Year in Richmond Park collection, Alex has been featured in the national press, including the Daily Mail, Metro, Evening Standard, the Times, the Sun, and the Telegraph. He also appeared in the November edition of National Geographic and is a National Geographic exclusive artist. His photographs are available for commercial use through his agent, Nat Geo Creative.

  1. Tell us about your work.
I am primarily a nature and wildlife photographer. Although I enjoy mixing it up sometimes by delving into street photography and more artistic styles. I am happiest when taking photos of animals with dramatic or atmospheric backdrops.

  1. Tell us about your photographic training, learning process, and particularly how your work evolved as a result of it.
I think I was always a creative person and originally worked as a web designer. I took up photography as a hobby and enjoyed the whole process of teaching myself. Although, a big help was using online photographic competition sites such as Here I could learn from other photographers, submit my own work and get feedback. Each week there were several different challenges, each giving you a chance to be creative and to learn different styles and techniques. This led me to develop and turn to what I loved most, nature.

  1. How did you make the transition from hobbyist to professional photographer?
Well, I was lucky really, in that a journalist picked up my work from Flickr. She ran a story on my time in Richmond Park, which was well received by all the newspapers in the UK. From there, I got a book deal and offer to appear in Nat Geo November 2011 edition with my Angel Swan photo. All this happened whilst still doing my day job as a web designer. Shortly afterwards, I got signed up to be an exclusive photographer with Nat Geo and decided to leave the day job to become a photographer.

  1. Tell us about the gear you use and your loyalty to Canon.
Well, I started with a Canon 300D and then continued down the 5D path. I now use the Canon 5D MKIII and the MKII as backup. I shot quite a great deal of photos using the Canon 100-400mm lens, which for me did a great job. For landscape shots, originally I used the Canon 16-35mm. I have now moved on to the Canon 200-400mm, which is AMAZING. I love to have the flexibility of a zoom for wildlife - I think a great deal of shots can be missed otherwise. I replaced the 16-35mm with a 14mm Canon and a Canon 24-70mm. I prefer that combination. I also have a few other lenses such as the Canon 85mm 1.8 and Sigma 50mm 1.4, plus a Canon 180mm macro.

  1. What’s always in your camera bag?
I usually carry with me both the MKIII and MKII bodies, a Canon flash, Canon 200-400mm, 14mm, and 24-70mm MKII lenses. Along with ND grad filters, polariser, tripod, spare batteries, and a cable release.

  1. Tell us about the challenges involved in shooting in exotic, foreign locations.
In Brazil, where I live now, I have had a few problems with the humidity. In fact, my Canon 5D MKIII stopped working several times due to this. I now use silica gel bags in my kit as standard. The main problem is actually choosing whether to go with a non-photographer, a photographer, or alone. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

  1. What do you find most rewarding in the creative process, and how do you overcome that which you find challenging?
For me, just being at an amazing location and having the sheer luck to have an animal walk into the frame at the right time in the right spot, that is always the highlight. Then, I suppose, the excitement of getting home to see it on the computer and find out if it was as good as I thought. With nature photography, I try to just go with the flow and not force things. It’s impossible anyway! That way, I never feel challenged, just happy if I get a few good shots at the end of the day.

  1. Tell us about your book, Richmond Park.
My first book, Richmond Park, was a collection of shots throughout the years in a park, near to where I used to live, in London. It is still one of the most stunning and atmospheric places I have ever been to; that, combined with having so many animals there, makes it a very special place. Even though I must have visited the park over a thousand times, each time I visited, it took on a slightly different feel. Another thing I really enjoy, that Brazil doesn’t have, is the seasons. This really makes photography in the same locations a lot more fun.

  1. How essential is Photoshop and other types of software to the contemporary professional photographer?
For me, I used Photoshop a lot more in the old days, when the digital cameras were struggling more to capture what you saw. Now, I am steering away from any real processing, other than slight contrast and saturation tweaks, cropping, and white balance control.

  1. I’m aware of at least one instance where your work was used without your permission. What advice can you give regarding copyright protection?
There isn’t anything you can really do, apart from sending a polite email asking if they can credit you. I do try to place a watermark on my shots in an area where cloning it out would be problematic.

  1. In the digital age, a lifetime of work can be lost in an instant. How do you store, archive, and backup your precious work?
Since I had a hard drive malfunction, a while back, I always copy each hard drive and store the copies in another location. I try to always have the work in two places, even three.

  1. Tell us a little about any good photography you’ve seen recently or good books you’ve read.
I am a massive fan of Steve McCurry. For me, he captures the essence of a person or scene.

  1. What advice can you give to aspiring photographers?
Just be true to what you love - combine the love of taking photos with a  passion; whether it is travel, a sport, people or animals. In that way, the passion will show in the work.

  1. Where can we find you and your work?
Online at, The vast majority of my photos are available for commercial use through my agent Nat Geo Creative. Alternatively, please use the contact form on my website to contact me directly.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Interview with Mike Thompson

Best known for his portraits of entertainers and celebrities, Mike Thompson has built a name for himself in the world of art.  His paintings have been featured on television, and in print and web campaigns. Mike began his career working as both Designer and Art Director in the fashion industry.  After creating top selling designs for companies such as Timberland, Ecko and Nike, the artist left the corporate world to become a full-time illustrator.

Over the past decade, his artwork has been featured in magazines, video game covers, movie posters and toy packaging.  Some of his clients include: Marvel, Hasbro, Warner Bros, Dimension Films, and Cartoon Network.

One of Corel’s featured 'Painter Masters,' Mike has hosted several webinars for the company. His art and techniques have appeared in many international publications, as well as the books: Digital Collage and Painting, by Susan Ruddick Bloom, and Secrets of Corel Painter Experts, by Darryl Wise and Linda Hellfritsch.

  1. Tell us about your work.
I am a professional illustrator. Over the past 15 years I’ve worked on pieces for the music, fashion, video game, television and movie industries.

  1. What aspects of your childhood inspired your artistic creativity?
I grew up reading comics and watching cartoons, which proved to be a constant source of inspiration. I was always a big fan of music, especially hip-hop, so I started my career painting rappers for magazines. I am also a very big sci-fi and videogame nerd, so later I transitioned into package design for action figures, and console games.

  1. Tell us about your artistic training, learning process, and particularly how your work evolved as a result of it.
Drawing and painting has pretty much been a constant for me since I was a child. I can’t really remember not doing it. So, naturally, I majored in graphic design in college. I am a fan of great art, so I look at other artists’ work to improve my own. I still use books, and tutorial videos, to learn new techniques. I am a big believer that you are never done learning. That and a desire to always improve is what motivate me.

  1. Tell us about your various creative roles and any important lessons you learned.
Over the years I have been a staff artist, art director, creative director and consultant. I’ve enjoyed and learned a lot from each position. Most importantly, the more people you need to direct, the less time you have to create. I like to create.

  1. What advice would you give to someone considering making a transition from traditional drawing and painting to digital?
Too many artists jump right into digital work with no foundation in traditional techniques. I think it is important to start with the basics before moving to digital work. Where should they start - what equipment and software do they need? Very simple; paper and pencil. Master that and your paintings will look infinitely better. As far as equipment for digital work, any PC with decent specs and enough memory will work. I would definitely suggest buying a drawing tablet, trying to paint with a mouse is not really an option.

  1. Corel Painter is an integral tool in your most recent work. What is Corel Painter and how does it help you to create your stunning images?
Painter is a natural media painting application. It mimics traditional drawing and painting very convincingly. One thing I am not a fan of in digital painting is the traditional “digitally painted” look. I think leaving in brush strokes makes your work less sterile and far more interesting. I also use Photoshop, usually for its transformation tools and color correction.

  1. Traditional artistic training or computer aptitude? What advice would you give to anyone considering a career in commercial illustration?
I believe you have to have some form of traditional training in order to succeed - even if you are learning from videos, books or online, that training is very important. Computer aptitude helps, but I know digital artists who know very little and are successful.

  1. Your image of the Joker, as portrayed by Heath Ledger, is truly iconic. Tell us about it.
Thank you. I painted that piece for Warner Bros. around the time that the Dark Knight was released. It was used for promotion of the movie and is still one of my favourite pieces. That is one of those pieces of art I mentioned earlier where leaving in all the strokes added to the impact of the painting. Unfortunately, it is also one of my most bootlegged paintings, but I guess that just means people like it.

  1. What do you find most rewarding in the creative process, and how do you overcome that which you find challenging?
The most rewarding part of the process to me is, stepping away from a finished painting and knowing I have accomplished what I set out to do. I’d like to say it happens more often than it does, but when you nail it on the first pass, I have to admit, it feels good. The challenging thing is going back to something that could be done better and reworking it. Over the years, it’s become less of a chore, or even an option. It doesn’t matter how much good work I’ve put out, the paintings people don’t forget are the ones that aren’t.

  1. Tell us about your contributions to the Verizon Interactive Fan Wall at the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey.
That was a really fun project. The concept was pitched to me as kind of Tom Cruise in Minority Report. The ad agency had me paint full sized versions of the Verizon actors for a 10’ x 30’ wall. They then mounted three HD touch screen monitors vertically on rails in front of my painting. As you slide the monitor over my painting, it appears on the monitor then transitions from a black and white static image into a live action feed talking about the service. Very cool! As a tech nut, I was all over this project.

  1. You have worked on animated television series such as Green Lantern and Beware the Batman. You have also created posters and iconic images for the film industry. What aspirations, or reservations, do you have regarding the continuing application of your work to film and television?
My aspirations are to continue doing it as long as possible, hah. I am a tremendous comic fan, so working with DC and now Marvel has always been a dream of mine. I don’t really have any reservations, what is not to like about superheroes and movies? Working on the Guardians before the movie came out was fantastic, so I couldn’t be happier.

  1. Tell us about your work exhibited at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
I painted an illustration I called the 4 Elements. The concept was four legendary figures of hip-hop: a graffiti artist (Lady Pink), a break dancer (Crazy Legs), a turntablist (Grandmaster Flash) and a rapper (Jay Z). I chose to unify them with the colour orange. Since my origins were with hip-hop, this piece meant a lot to me.

  1. What other interests do you have?
I’ve always been a big gamer, so in what little free time I have I’ll jump on one of my consoles or watch a movie.

  1. Tell us a little about any good art you’ve seen recently or good books you’ve read.
I see fantastic art every day. Pinterest has proven to be both the best and worst thing ever. I spend way too much time there… “Do you like this awesome painting? Well here are a thousand more you might like!” I have to set limits or I will blow my entire day. The last book I read isn’t new, but it was awesome, Ready Player One. And, I just heard Spielberg will be directing the movie!

  1. Where can we find you and your work?
Everywhere; but my site is a good start: I have links to everything else from there.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Interview with Ian Miller

Ian Miller is a British artist, illustrator and writer best known for his macabre sensibility, and surreal, quirkily-etched Gothic style. He is a graduate of St Martin’s School of Art Painting Faculty, and is noted for his detailed book, magazine, and graphic novel illustrations, including covers for books by H.P. Lovecraft, contributions to David Day's Tolkien-inspired compendiums, work for various Games Workshop-published fantasy gaming periodicals, role-playing and war gaming books and supplements, including popular Warhammer titles. His experience also extends to feature films such as Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards and Coolworld, and pre-production and production work on numerous short films and highly successful movies including ‘Shrek’.

  1. What aspects of your childhood inspired your artistic creativity?
My mother worked for one of the leading theatrical costumiers in London during the early part of the fifties; so I was, from the outset, caught up in the most intimate workings of the Illusion Machine. My toy chests overflowed with the cast offs and oddments from a score of film and theatre productions. I was receptive to everything that was weird and wonderful. Fact and fiction were not in contention. Strange worlds could still be reached through the backs of cupboards, if you knew where to look. Bubble gum was made from Everglades swamp water - that was a fact. I remember, whilst travelling to Manchester on a steam train, seeing a herd of headless cows from the carriage window. When I mentioned it to the other occupants of the carriage, they just smiled, and said such things where commonplace in the North of England.

  1. Your work is meticulous, highly detailed, dark and often humorous. What creative works inspired you or first drew you to your preferred forms of artistic expression?
Most everything, if truth be known. We are bombarded by detail wherever we look. I have always had an enquiring mind, and for me, making marks seemed like an appropriate response (making sense of, if you will). I used whatever tools were to hand; and by elimination, found the ones that best suited my needs. I do not think I set out with any preconceptions about how I wanted to express myself as an artist, nor how I should achieve that. I studied painting at Art School, but seldom went near a canvas. I think I got lost in seven years of Art History and Theory and always found myself painting like, after, or in the manner of, some other person or school. Etching and dip pens felt more like me, a more direct conduit to expression if you will. That said, however, I have a wide remit and my studio is cluttered with a plethora of large images and constructions. I started off at St Martin’s in the Sculpture Department and switched to painting in the second year. I think of this as a slow meander to God knows where? But I’m still drawing; so, “Huzzah!” for that.

  1. Tell us about your learning process, and particularly how your work evolved as a result of it.
First, magic colouring books - you added water and the colours magically appeared. My father bought them in London somewhere. After this, twelve coloured pencils with a different colour each end. It was my sixth birthday. The vivid quality of the colours was startling; and even now, all these years on, I can still remember the excitement they aroused in me. Their arrival prompted my ‘Ancient Egyptian Phase‘. Frontality, hieroglyphic pillars, pyramids, and Ancient Egyptians was all that mattered. It must have been the desert yellow that started it. But whatever the reason, sand, asps, striped towels, palm trees and pyramids, filled the pages of my drawing books until every one of those twelve pencils was all used up. That was a very sad day for me. Then school, and those bloody awful powder paints, and small yard brooms they passed off as paint brushes. I remember I used to paint papier-mâché buns with the paint then eat them. I seem to remember I liked brown paper bags as well.

I took up etching in my first year at Art School and flirted on and off with the process for the next seven years of study. Needless to say, I was wholly intrigued by the process, but eternally frustrated by the difficulties of securing time on an etching press. The printing facilities at St Martin’s School of Art in the late sixties were not brilliant, and always heavily oversubscribed. This was a real shame because the staff and technicians were really very good. In any event, I came across one of my friends drawing with a Rotring Rapidograph and after trying one out myself, knew I’d stumbled on the solution to my problem.

The drawing point of the technical pen, although different in so many ways from that of an etching needle, provided a precise substitute. Although every image was now an edition of one, it did allow me to create the type of line work I wanted; and most importantly, when I wanted. This was a sheer joy. Admittedly, the mono line quality of these pens imposed limitations; but they were clean and efficient tools, and I found I quickly compensated for any shortfalls. In fact, building up surfaces / veneers, was so much easier and so much faster that my image production quadrupled. Laying down one pattern of lines on top of another, for so many years, in all manner of configurations and permutations, was perhaps the perfect preparation for understanding and manipulating the levels feature in Photoshop. Some might say, “What about working a knitting machine?” and I would have to say, “Yes, but I prefer the former.”

  1. Of the work you’ve created, do you have a favourite? If so, why this particular work?
I do not have a fixed favourite. Mood dictates ‘favourite’ and, for the most part, all I see are the shortfalls in my imagery. That said, I always view this as a healthy state of mind, because it motivates me to try harder. My favourite painting is Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough in the National Gallery. I love this image in any mood.

‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.’ ~ Walt Whitman

  1. Tell us about The Broken Diary.
The Broken Diary is a natural extension of my working practise, a necessary development. I have always loved storytelling, and picked the right tool and vehicle for the job. Transposing my thoughts and images into words is always an exciting process. I was inspired many years ago by Alfred Kubin’s book, The Other Side. The Broken Diary is a real life diary, juxtaposed against a twisting tale of delusion, dream and nightmare. Perhaps they are one and the same thing?

It was a very generic process. There were no real constraints. All things were possible. I’m now reworking a theatre project, which nearly made it to the London stage some years back, called The Shingle Dance for an animation project/film in the Netherlands. I also adapted it for opera, but the lighthouse collapsed in the Shetlands. Third time lucky, maybe?

  1. You are a writer and artist who successfully applied imaginative skills to several creative outlets, including graphic novels and feature films. Tell us about any challenges you have faced with the adaptation of your work.
The creative imperative, in my view, is to push constantly at the boundaries of one’s practise, beyond the comfort zones, if you will. I try hard to do this. I do not always succeed, but I do try. I find the process of image making hard, and always have done. Sometimes I’m astonished I found a way through, despite a lifetime of application.

A tale about Hollywood?

It was whilst my wife and I were wandering penniless around San Francisco in 1974 /5, that Ralph (Bakshi) tracked me down via London and New York, and offered me a job working on his film, Wizards in Los Angeles. At that time, the working title for the film, as I recall, was War Wizards. This hunt was prompted by Ralph having seen a Gormenghast Castle image I had created for Pan Books some months earlier. After our frugal time in the old Gaylord Hotel near Union Square, where the lift threatened to die every day, and the event of the week was the free doughnuts and coffee on Sunday mornings, West Hollywood was a startling contrast. Although the scenery was not so good, the material gains were quite dramatic - in short, a fairytale transformation.

Seeing my work enhanced and animated was astonishing, as was interacting with so many talented people in the Bakshi studios. Ralph allowed me immense freedom of expression; and I worked all the better for it, I think. Such licence is rarely given or found. My association with Ralph was a dynamic, and never to be forgotten experience. Sometimes, I liken it to trench warfare for the artists. You lived ever second of it - whizz, bangs, screams, and all. It was sometimes exhausting; but it was never ever boring, or middle of the road.

  1. Where do Orange Monkeys come from, and why are they so dangerous?
They pop into your head when you’re dreaming. Some people dangle them in cocktails by their tails and giggle a lot. I suspect that that pisses them off, big time. I swore I’d never say a thing, if they left me in peace. Even the spiders are frightened of them. Just pray they never visit you in your dreams.

  1. What do you find most rewarding in the creative process, and how do you overcome that which you find challenging?
By taking a very deep breath, three in fact; and saying mantra style, “I can do this,” as many times as it takes to get me moving. I remind myself I have served my time and that I have the skills and discipline to follow through. The magic comes through application. The experience is always different, tantalizing even. There is always so much to learn, so much to hone and perfect, then there is magic.

  1. You have worked on popular films such as Shrek. What aspirations, or reservations, do you have regarding the continuing application of your work to film and television?
My last stint working on a film was in Vancouver. It was a wee bit ‘humourless and sweat shop’. I went to work on development imagery, and everything was being pushed to finish from the very start. I did not feel it was an environment I could function well in. I left early. I have no problem with applying my work to film or any other medium. As I mentioned earlier, I’m adapting a script and imagery for an animation project. Wonderful stuff, if we get the funding. I’ll be working with some superb and talented people. It doesn’t get any better than that. I love the vital interaction these situations throw up, and I am always open to suggestions and offers. If somebody thinks I can contribute something useful, then why not give it a go?

  1. Who, do you imagine, would be your ideal client?
Somebody who trusts me to do what I do well, pays an equitable fee, has a sense of humour, and sees beyond the pound or dollar signs associated with the project. Whether you attach a small or big ‘A’ to the word art that is what I try to do. I care a great deal about the process of image making.

  1. Tell us a little about any good art you’ve seen recently, and good books you’ve read.
The Matisse Cut-Outs exhibition at Tate Modern is a superb exhibition in my opinion. I hope to see it several more times before it finishes. I loved the Mira Schendel show, also at Tate modern, and the Lowry at Tate Britain, a month or so back.

Books: The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk, Berlin Letters by Robert Walser, and A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. I’m about to start reading What is Madness? by Darian Leader, and War and Cinema by Paul Virilio, if the madness doesn’t take me first.

  1. What other interests do you have?
Walking, sailing, staring at the sky, and talking to rabbits and dogs. Also, planning my next move in the search for my long-lost green sock, with the orange windmills on it - last seen by the ornamental lake, in Victoria Park, Rangoon.

  1. Where can we find you and your work?
In dark cupboards; and if you look me up on: Wikipedia. In places I’ve forgotten I’ve even been. I’ve been scratching away for a very long time. Some of it would perhaps be best buried and forgotten.

Editor's note: I found Ian on his official website: and you can too.