Amanda Divine: We interviewed Kurt Cyrus
earlier this year, and he mentioned how passionate
you were about children's books, even while at
Art Center College of Design (ACCD). Was this something you had always
wanted to do?
Lane Smith: I always loved children's
books and just about anything relating to childhood.
I had a great upbringing, great parents. While
at Art Center I gravitated to the naive painters
and minimalists: Paul Klee, Calder, etc--artists
whose work was very childlike. It was a natural
progression for me to reexamine kid's books in
the Art Center library and think, "Hey maybe
this is an option." At that time, Art Center
had no children's illustration course so I was
forced to take a class on that subject at a competing
school: Otis Parsons in Los Angeles. All of us
Art Center guys (Kurt, Dave Shannon, Tim Egan,
Thomas Kinkade (!)) were studying editorial illustration,
so when I moved to New York a year after graduation
I worked for places like the NY Times,
Time Magazine, etc., while building my
children's book portfolio at night.
Amanda: So were you already planning
on children's illustration when you began at Art
Center, or did you just know you wanted to be
involved in art somehow?
Lane Smith: No, when I started at Art
Center I only knew I didn't want to be a dentist
or an accountant. I remember raising my hand at
orientation and asking, "This is a stupid question,
but what IS illustration anyway?"
I mean, I knew it was commercial art and all
but I was really confused how the whole business
worked. I knew I wanted to do cartooning or animation
or SOMETHING fun. I was there for less than a
year when I started thinking seriously about kid's
Amanda: What led you to Art Center in
the first place, as opposed to becoming a kindergarten
teacher, or a whale biologist?
Lane Smith: In high school I had a great
art teacher, Mr. Baughman, who saw some potential
in my work. Up until then I hadn't given a career
in art much thought. And college was not a top
priority in my family. In fact, of all my relatives
and immediate family only one or two ever even
thought about college. Mr. Baughman personally
drove me to Pasadena, an hour and a half away,
and introduced me to the school recruiters. If
not for him I'd still be painting Christmas windows
or doing caricatures at an amusement park.
Amanda: What kind of work were you doing
that caught his attention?
Lane Smith: This was high school so nothing
exceptional...he just saw some skill, I guess.
Unlike the other kids who were painting their
names with decorative borders or copying a picture
from a magazine, I was painting gas stations and
railroad crossings. But I guess that was different
enough. Of course, when I left class I would go
home and doodle Spiderman and Charlie Brown for
fun. Looking at my work now I see a cross between
fine artsy influences and pop culture ones.
Amanda: When you started at Art Center,
were you drawing and painting with the same sort
of style and subject, or did you try to reinvent
Lane Smith: Good question. My work was
always humorous but at Art Center it became less
cartoony. I was influenced by a lot of great European
illustration of the time...this was also the era
of punk and new wave music and fashion so my stuff
got a little more jagged and sharp edged (splattery,
too. A lot of us were "borrowing" from Ralph Steadman).
Some of my first jobs were in punk newspapers
and on album covers for groups like The Dickies
and Danny Elfman's Oingo Boingo.
Amanda: I can definitely see this in your
early work - if not sharp edges, at least very
distinct ones. Were your classes pushing you in
this direction as well?
Lane Smith: No! Art Center was very rigid
at that time and stressed a clean, slick, photo-realistic
Amanda: Then mostly other students and
Lane Smith: Both. The music was a big
influence and the whole L.A. scene. Pee Wee Herman's
live show was in Hollywood, almost every weekend
you could see acts like Gang of Four or X or the
Clash or Dwight Yoakam. Gary Panter was doing
covers for the L.A. Weekly, in Esquire
and other magazines you would see illustrations
by Sue Coe, Andre Francois, Blair Drawson...and
at Art Center, students like Matt Mahurin, John
Hersey and others were breaking out of the traditional
ACCD mold. It was exciting. I think I was at the
right place at the right time.
Amanda: What did you get out of your children's
illustration class at Otis Parsons? I assume you
took more than one...
Lane Smith: I just took the one course.
The teacher was Barbara Bottner who had published
several books herself. I believe what I got out
of it was confidence in my work and also The Basics
about book dummies. I also remember that more
than half of the class was gone by the end of
the course. Each week you'd see less faces. This
taught me a valuable lesson: perseverance. I knew
if I was going to make it at all I had to stick
with it. Good groundwork since The True Story
of the 3 Little Pigs was ultimately rejected
by over a dozen publishers before finally finding
a home at Viking Books.
Amanda: What did you do after graduation,
before moving to New York?
Lane Smith: I worked for California
magazine, L.A. Weekly and the L.A. Reader;
I did some album covers and was also mailing slides
of my portfolio to out of state magazines like
The Progressive, Rolling Stone,
etc. By the time I got to New York I had a few
nice published pieces. I was also interested in
animation. I worked on several shorts at Art Center
and Kurt Cyrus and I spent a week making a strange,
underground stop motion animated short (literally
underground, the lead character rode atop an old,
turn-of-the-century clothes-iron in a dark mine
Amanda: What sort of positions did you
hold at the California magazines?
Lane Smith: I was just a freelance illustrator.
The California magazines were some of my clients.
Amanda: How did the animation turn out?
Lane Smith: The animation turned out pretty
good. It was definitely down and dirty with us
mounting the camera on toy train tracks for smooth
dolly shots. I guess it was somewhere between
Jan Svankmajer, the Bros. Quay and Art Clokey!
Amanda: Did you do any others? The article
on Wikipedia about you mentions that you
worked as a janitor for Disney, so I wondered
if you had been thinking about working in their
Lane Smith: I dabbled with other handmade
films until Henry Selick called me to design the
stop motion characters for James and the Giant
Peach. After minutes of being on-set at Skellington
Productions with their amazing animators I tucked
my tail between my legs and never attempted another
animation on my own.
And yes, I was a proud Custodial Host at the
Magic Kingdom. I was VERY animated cleaning the
barf off the Teacups in Fantasyland. Very animated.
We used to deodorize it with this concoction they
called Pixie Dust™. No lie.
Amanda: Did you already have a job lined
up in New York when you moved there, or was it
just the best place to be for what you wanted
Lane Smith: No, I had nothing lined up.
I had lived with my parents all through college
and it was my first time out of the house and
on my own. I had a little money saved up from
Disneyland, but honestly, I don't know what I
was thinking...no checking account, no credit,
hardly any cash. I slept on illustrator Matt Mahurin's
floor for four or five weeks till I found an apartment.
I guess what I had was determination...or better
yet, fear of failure. I just kept schlepping my
portfolio around. .I had a duplicate portfolio,
too. Sometimes I was able to do two drop-offs
plus an actual person-to-person appointment in
the same day. This of course was in the early
eighties and New York was the place to be for
an aspiring illustrator. Now, I'd imagine you
would do everything over the internet.
Amanda: Where did you finally get your
"in"? How long did it take to get things going?
Lane Smith: Actually, my first week in
New York I got a little spot illustration in the
New York Times. An op-ed piece. After that
I slowly started getting more spots, then full
pages, then cover illustrations. There were lean
times and busy times but eventually it became
Amanda: What did you have in your portfolio?
Lane Smith: I had an uneven mix of class
assignments, personal work and a few published
California pieces. It eventually became an even
mix as I refined my style and got more prominent
published pieces. I guess the thing that unified
it was it was all humorous. A lot of it was much
darker than the stuff I do today... but still
funny. Or trying to be funny.
Amanda: How were you preparing for doing
children's books? Did you have specific ideas
you were working on, or were you just trying to
get noticed in that market?
Lane Smith: I figured if anyone was ever
going to publish my work - [which was] pretty
odd for a children's book back in 1986 - I would
have to show them an entire book, not just a dummy
or proposal. So, each night after my portfolio
rounds I'd work on oil paintings of a different
letter of the alphabet. They were Halloween-themed...after
a few months I had all 26 letters of the alphabet.
I took this to Macmillan Publishing. They liked
it but felt like it could use a narrative. They
showed the paintings to veteran writer Eve Merriam
and amazingly, she agreed to write poems around
the art; the reverse process of the way most books
are done. We called it Halloween ABC and
it was my first book.
However there was a problem. That year there
was a strike at the Chinese publisher so my Halloween
book came out in November! Still, it managed to
win a few awards and get my foot in the door.
Incidentally, it was rereleased a few years back
as Spooky ABC in an enlarged format with
added notes and things.
Amanda: When did you get interested in
Lane Smith: As a kid, I always wrote stories
and comic books... and I've continued throughout
my life. I've always been interested in reading
and writing but I think I use that other side
of my brain. Visuals come easily, writing is hard.
I can do one or even two illustrations in a day
but I'll spend weeks going over a single paragraph.
Even then I'll show it to friends - who are much
better writers - and they'll say, "You don't need
those last two lines."
Amanda: Much of your art is done around
other authors' text...do you approach that sort
of project the same way as if you had control
of the entire book?
Lane Smith: When I write my own book I
develop the art and visuals together. Sometimes
the picture comes first, sometimes the text. When
illustrating someone else's story, it's a chance
to interpret their words in a way they might not
have thought of. By the time one finishes a story
they've usually lost all objectivity. Hopefully
I can bring a fresh eye to it. For instance with
Jon Scieszka's The True Story of the 3 Little
Pigs I think I said, "Hey, since the Wolf
is telling his story in flashback maybe I should
illustrate him in stripes sitting in a jail cell?"
With my own work there's always a point about
halfway into the book when it starts to get stale.
That's when I hand it to my wife, Molly Leach,
and she does a few page layouts. Just seeing the
unexpected ways she designs the type ("Hey, I
would have never thought of using that font!")
always reinvigorates me and the book.
Amanda: While illustrating someone else's
story, do you quickly map out the entire book
to try to avoid that sort of "overthinking" roadblock?
Lane Smith: I start with doodles in the
margins of the manuscript. Even before I've finished
reading it for the first time I'm sketching. I
then work up character studies, then finally begin
blocking out the whole book. I guess I don't have
that "overthinking" roadblock. Maybe I have an
underthinking EZ Pass or something.
Amanda: When you started working on the
film version of James and the Giant Peach,
did you begin with a different plan than you would
for a book?
Lane Smith: Yes. My job was to design
the main characters and create twenty paintings
which illustrated key scenes from the movie. The
director, Henry Selick, might occasionally suggest
a sequence from the script he wanted to see but
for the most part he left me alone to paint what
I liked. He was a good guy to work with.
For the characters, I did hundreds of sketches.
Again, Henry and I were on the same wavelength...towards
the end we fine-tuned little areas here and there
but he pretty much liked most of what I came up
with. Oh! Actually, Miss Spider took forever.
I'm not that good at doing "sexy" so we went through
lots of designs before I got her right. Towards
the end, everyone at Skellington Productions was
jumping in with their two cents. Which I was happy
Amanda: Do you have any plans for other
Lane Smith: Not anytime soon. It's so
hard to make them. They take so long and often
become compromised. Jon and I worked on the Stinky
Cheese Man movie for years at two different studios...today
the project is in limburger limbo.
Amanda: What made you decide to write
John, Paul, George and Ben?
Lane Smith: I love history and particularly
the founding fathers. I was working on a much
larger history book: Columbus to the Moon Walk.
You can imagine, it was looong. My favorite period
is the Colonial period so I decided to cut back
and concentrate there. Speaking of films, Weston
Woods is doing a little animated short of John,
Paul, George & Ben with James Earl Jones narrating.
It'll be available next year.
Amanda: How have kids reacted to the
book? It almost seems like learning, which could
Lane Smith: From the letters I've received
they seem to be liking it a lot. Okay, truthfully,
they seem less into the historical facts and more
into the big underwear jokes. But that's okay.
I might get them excited about history through
"ye olde backdoor" as they say.
Amanda: Is history a source of inspiration
you think you'll dip into again soon, or do you
want to mix things up as much as possible?
Lane Smith: I have a couple of books I'm
working on now that are not historical, but in
'08 I have a fictional picture book coming out
about a president.