Drawing On A History : Interview with Artist Kung Fu Bob O'Brien
The Sister Street Fighter Collection by Arrow Video is a celebration and a call to action. In their effort to make something unabashed, bold and fun Arrow has also done Shihomi Etsuko a great and belated justice. As highlighted in a previous piece, Shihomi stands as the only female all-around action star to emerge from Japan, and whats more is that she remains woefully under sung. Other women have inhabited action oriented roles in Japanese cinema - as indeed the searingly silent Meiko Kaji is branded into the consciousness as Lady Snowblood AND Sasori respectively- but none have made “bringing the fight” their true bread and butter (indicative of a profoundly patriarchal industry standard). One hopes that this highly bingeable reissue not only sparks a well-deserved career retrospective of Shihomi’s trailblazing efforts, but also integrates her into the larger pantheon of flying fists, like those of Angela Mao-Ying, whom Sister Street Fighter director Yamaguchi Kazuhiko initially wanted to cast as the kindhearted but deadly half-Chinese half-Japanese Li Koryu.
Seeing the new edition, one is apt to crack a smile and have a glint of deranged excitement in their eye. This has everything to do with the collision of sheer talent and wild enthusiasm possessed by artist Robert “Kung Fu Bob” O’Brien. Cinema76 had the opportunity to speak with O’Brien, and it was quickly evident that he doesn’t just “like” Martial Arts cinema, he is head over heels for it, and matches that fierce sentiment with a rare kind of knowledge and an enduring dedication (himself a longtime student of Shinowara-ryu Jujutsu). From his days collecting Zatoichi films on VHS until he’d amassed the sprawling blood-soaked series, to being the one sought out to make the images which adorn such films, O’Brien is truly an example of fandom coming full circle. Cinema76 sat down with O’Brien to talk career, film, creative process, and the journey of Sister Street Fighter from concept to sketch to final draft. Interstitial images will reveal the stages of this process, as well as previous works. O’Brien has an infectious enthusiasm for film, a generous spirit and a mad talent. Please enjoy our conversation!
76: When did you start illustrating, and subsequently when did you gravitate to film poster and package design? What was it like when people started seeking you out for your talents? (asking as an artist)
KFB: Well, I've been drawing ever since I could hold a crayon, and doing commissioned artwork for people since I was a kid, but I guess my first professional illustrations may have been for a little publishing company called Strider Nolan. My sensei at that time, Jonathan Maberry, wanted to start putting out martial arts oriented books. So that led to me creating some drawings for Ultimate Jujutsu: Principles & Practices (and taking a ton of photos for it as well). That's the first time I was officially published in book form, though I had had a few things in magazines before that. We were all very excited about it, and I think the book came out great. After that he wrote Ultimate Sparring: Principles & Practices which delved into the different ways that various martial arts schools practice. This had less drawing work and more photography, but it was terrific because I got to be exposed up-close-and-personal to so many different styles, teachers and students. Often they would invite us to join in on their classes before photo shoots, so we could better understand their styles.
My family are big cinephiles, so I grew up with movies playing a big role in my life. After seeing films I would often draw images from them, or sculpt the creatures or characters that I saw that had captured my imagination (for a long time I was learning how to do special make-up effects and planned on doing that for a living). My parents were tremendously encouraging and thankfully never said "Stop drawing and go out and play football like a normal kid". Sometimes I'd try creating my own version of poster art, just for my own amusement. I actually remember when I was a teenager drawing a picture of Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba and daydreaming about how cool it would be to create new poster art to represent the film The Street Fighter. It didn't really make any sense, because I could not foresee how there would ever be an opportunity to do something like that for a film that was already decades old at that point (this was long before DVDs and Blu-rays). But I had this image in my head just the same, and this Grindhouse, exploitation film narration type text that I could hear aloud, almost like the stuff playing over the best trailers from the '70s, unspooling in my mind. I vividly recall thinking that this was something that would never happen, but that it was still a fun thing to fantasize about.
The first time I was given a job to create a poster/cover art for a film that Steven Biro was releasing through Unearthed films. He had this low budget title called Lethal Force, an action comedy inspired by Hong Kong Cinema, and he asked if I could do some art for it. I will always be thankful for him giving me my first opportunity to have my work on an official DVD release. After that I just started cold writing to DVD companies and suggesting that they use my work for their releases. Hahaha. This was quite a ways back, and I didn't get much of a response. I continued to work at a series of different day jobs while creating artwork in my free time and selling prints on the side. I had a few small movie distribution labels that wanted me to do art for them, but they could barely pay me anything. I did a lot of that kind of work for the love of it, and also simply hoping to get my stuff seen. My wife, son and sister basically had to drag me into the social media scene so that I could find a larger audience. The big turning point for me was was when Cliff MacMillan contacted me to say that he was working for Shout! Factory and had recommended me to them for some cover work. He explained that they were releasing a DVD collection of Angela Mao films. I nearly fell out of my chair.
76: It seems evident that you prefer Asian cinematic subject matter. Have you long been a fan of Asian genre-cinema?
KFB: My earliest interest was first sparked by seeing Godzilla and other Kaiju-Eiga films on Saturday afternoon TV, the cartoon Hong Kong Phooey (lead character voiced by the great Scatman Crothers), Ultraman (1966), Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot (1967), and the martial arts I saw in Elvis and James Bond movies. Once I started seeing Chuck Norris and Sho Kosugi films I started craving more martial arts action. In my early teens this cool cat I worked for introduced me to Bruce Lee's films and Shogun Assassin. These totally hooked me, and seeing Lee doing his thing turned that initial spark into a raging inferno of inspiration, not just to see more movies, but to begin training in the arts myself. I guess I bought my first pair of nunchaku within a week of seeing Enter The Dragon. Then my friend Erik lent me his taped-from-TV copy of Challenge of the Ninja (Heroes of the East, 1978), my first Shaw Brothers film, and it floored me!
76: Your aesthetic has an energetic, collage-like, punk aspect that seems well suited to the films you make work for. How did that style of illustration merged with photography and saturated colors emerge?
KFB: Thank you. Well, I guess it mostly developed from my first FIVE VENOMS drawing of "The Toad". Lo Meng, the Hong Kong martial arts actor that played the role was coming to Philadelphia for an event honoring him, and I wanted something unique to have him autograph for me, and decided to create something. I was working out the elements that I wanted to include and thought- well, I've got to feature the mask, so... probably a big portrait of that. And I also wanted to show him in the mask "in action", so it needed that. Plus, there had to be a dynamic image of him where you could see Lo unmasked. Having the carved animal on the chamber wall as a backdrop was a no-brainer as the background. With these- what I felt were the key elements- in mind I started mentally rearranging/sizing them to see the best composition to express the overall idea. I chose markers and ink because I thought that would help capture the bold, larger than life aesthetic and energy of the film. It came out nice, and my wife suggested I make and sell prints of it so that other fans could get it too. I wouldn't be where I am today without her unending support and belief in me succeeding as a professional artist, and thankfully I followed her advice, because it was one of those pivotal moments in my career. A lot of people got one, and most of them asked if I would be doing drawings of the rest of the Venoms, so I did. And that truly started the ball rolling.
Since I am crazy about these films it's easy to be creatively inspired by them, and I try to put that passion into the pieces I create based on them. Hoping to capture the spirit, the energy, the meaning of the films in what I do. So the tradition of creativity being inspired by the creative people and their work that came before, continues, and no doubt always will.
As for the non-traditional stuff, my buddy Tosh suggested scanning my finished drawings, then simply touching up the random marker spatter with Photoshop. I've never been one to gravitate to technology and was clueless about that kind of thing. He kindly (and very patiently) tutored me via phone on how to do it, and suggested I get a digital tablet and try doing some drawing that way. I got one- a Wacom Bamboo- but was dragging my feet about trying this new, unfamiliar thing. Then, as fate would have it, my friend Andy called to say he'd be meeting Jim Kelly (Enter The Dragon, 1973, Black Belt Jones, 1974) in a few days at a convention, and asked if there was any way I could draw something cool that he could present to him. This was the impetus to get me started using a whole different set of skills to express my ideas. I quickly did a traditional ink drawing of him from various films, and wanted it colored in a very specific way to evoke the posters from that '70s-'80s time period. Solid looking colors without stroke marks showing... something very clean looking. I decided to try coloring it using the new stuff I'd just learned, and was extremely pleased with what these tools allowed me to do. Especially pushing a button to get rid of mistakes instead of erasing, hiding, or starting over again from scratch!
This led me to wanting to create something entirely using the digital pad and pen. I decided on a piece celebrating the films and characters of Korean kicking expert Hwang Jang-Lee (Drunken Master, 1978). For someone like me that enjoys incorporating little details into their work, being able to zoom in and make a half inch worth of drawing fill my entire computer screen was exhilarating! I could go over and over something infinitely without worrying about too much paint build-up or paper that couldn't absorb any more ink. I could go over light colors with dark ones with no problems of bleeding or opacity. I spent 130 hours on that 24x36" piece! I'd done 6x8' drawings that hadn't taken more than a fraction of that time to complete. But still, I was pretty happy with the results. Then I started working hard to get more and more realistic results. But this wound up working against me, as many people simply thought they were looking at photos and not hand-drawn art. I started hearing this a lot, and a bunch of people whose opinions I value said that they missed "my style" that would come through more clearly when I used more traditional mediums. My wife asked "What is the point of working so long to make something look just like a photo? Why not just use a photo if you're going to do that?" I knew she was right. So for the most part I've moved away from drawing/painting digitally, and have primarily gone back to my old school ways. Now I typically use the digital tools for touch-ups or just adding some effects or background stuff.
76: Is the Sister Street Fighter set your first work for Arrow Video?
KFB: It was going to be, but no. Marc Walkow (who is responsible for a lot of terrific special features on Arrow releases) originally introduced me to the Arrow staff, and when the Sister Street Fighter project came up they thought I'd be a good fit for the job. But then before that happened, to my absolute delight, they asked me if first I'd like to create the cover art for Tom Mes' Arrow book Father, Son, Sword: The Lone Wolf And Cub Saga. Mr. Mes had recommended me as the guy for the job, which made it extra sweet, as I'm a fan of his writing and own his books.
76: The Sister Street Fighter set looks fantastic. It truly captures the grit, energy and bombast of the films. With that as an example, can you describe the process of developing imagery and arriving at a final draft?
KFB: I'm glad you dig it, thank you.
It's different with each piece, even within the same company. Sometimes a client will assign me a project and give me specific guidelines on what they want, with me basically just rendering their idea. At the other end of the spectrum, I've been lucky enough to be told "You know the movie, we trust you, do what you do" which is wonderful. Usually though, it's somewhere in between those two extremes, with them providing general guidelines of what they're looking for, characters they want included, or colors they prefer, while still remaining open to my ideas. Based on their instructions, or my instincts when given free reign, I do one or more sketches for them to see, often digitally, and sometimes with rough coloring if I feel it's necessary to properly convey the mood/design. A lot of the time I get a strong mental image right off the bat, so I'll do a rough of that. More often than not, this initial idea winds up being approved. But if that doesn't grab them, I'll come up with other designs and give them more choices. Sometimes I'm given a clear instruction on what they want, but I might see something else on that sketchpad in my brain. So I'll sketch what they requested first, and also my idea, and send them both, just in case.
Arrow have been great to work for. They gave very little instruction on the two projects I did for them and pretty much just let me go at it. For the Sister Street Fighter, I'd seen all of the films in the series several times, so I was quite familiar with them. I immediately knew I wanted to feature Etsuko "Sue" Shihomi doing a flying kick. She performs this move several times throughout the first three films, exhibits amazing form while doing it, and I think of it as a bit of a signature move for her. It seemed like a dynamic pose that would work well for the cover. I also wanted to pay homage to the film's origins by incorporating the Japanese title into it, and I felt putting her in front of it would add dimension to the whole thing. Then I imagined her surrounded by a gang of dangerous enemies to add excitement and the promise of lots of action- which the films unquestionably have.
Since the cover would represent all four films in the set I wanted to include a mix of enemies from each of the movies. I re-watched all of the films, then I pulled hundreds of reference photos from them and started whittling down the enemies and weapons to my favorites. Her opponents were mostly made up of martial artists from J.A.C. (The Japan Action Club), the action-actor training school that Sonny Chiba founded, and many of them appeared in each film playing different villains, so I picked the roles where I thought they each looked most unique. While trying to figure out how to most dramatically and efficiently depict the crowd I resorted to pulling different poses in front of a full-length mirror, switching stances and weapons to figure out what would look the best. Due to the over-the-top nature of the first three films I thought that a slightly less realistic, more graphic-novel inspired style would fit this subject best, so I went with that.
As I had recently finished doing art for Shout! Factory's The Street Fighter Collection, a very similar subject, I consciously tried to go for a color scheme that would be the opposite of that piece. With that goal in mind, instead of a fiery background I sketched it in rainy blue and purple tones. Now most companies have someone on staff that creates the text graphics and I'm not required to do it. But since I need to carefully compose the art to fit around titles anyway, and want something there as a "place-holder" when I map out the layout, I try to make it look as close to the movie's original on-screen or poster font as possible. Upon seeing the sketch they liked it, but asked me to move her down, more into the fray, instead of flying so high above it, and asked for brighter, more fiery colors. They were 100% right on both counts. I then drew Etsuko and the villainous crowd on water-color paper using Copic markers (which were gifted to me by my ultra-generous friend Bernard when he found out I'd never used them nor even heard of them before. They are the best markers EVER!). Once the drawings were complete I had them scanned and sent them to Arrow. Overall they were pleased, but they weren't sure about the mess of her colored rope-belt that was whipping up under her extended arm. I'd tried to make it look properly blurred and in motion, but at a reduced size they felt it looked more like a mistake. So I revised that bit digitally to make it clearer for the eye to read, and it did look much better. They also had a newly designed, more modern-looking font they'd created for the cover's English title, so they used that. And it was ready to go.
76: What is your favorite film, or series of films? What film have you been most excited about designing for? And lastly, what film would be a dream project for you?
KFB: That's a tough one because I admire so many. Series-wise, the Lone Wolf and Cub films are at the top, I never tire of them. The Zatoichi movies are near and dear to my heart. I once watched them all chronologically over a period of several days while I was very sick. When I finished the 26th film I almost put one of them back on again. Hahaha.
The Street Fighter may be my favorite film. I'm just a freak for this movie. It's Grindhouse gold! Chiba's Takuma (Terry in the English dub) Tsurugi is a vile bastard, yet he somehow simultaneously has some righteous virtues and charm. And when he fights, he's a real mean bastard! Just getting this movie on Blu-ray would've made me so happy, but getting to design the cover art? Straight up- that is a dream come true, literally. The Lone Wolf and Cub book cover is a very close second. Wish I could've also created the art for that film series' Blu-ray release.
For “dream projects”, Altered States (1980). I saw it when it came out in theaters- I had just turned 12- and it had a profound effect on me. Afterward I read Paddy Chayefsky's novel (a lot of which went right over my head on that first read), and I've revisited Ken Russell's version many times. It's so full of phenomenal imagery and ideas. I'd love to take a crack at representing that through my work. If not that, then Jimi Plays Monterey (1986), Seven Samurai (1954), something directed by Lau Kar-Leung, or El Topo (1970).
76: What can we expect next from Kung Fu Bob?
KFB: Plenty I hope! Currently on the slate I've got Blu-ray cover artwork I'm doing for Code Red (another dream-come-true job, but top secret), Ronin Flix, and my first job for FilmArts (which I am so psyched about, but again, can't reveal). I'm also working on and have booked several future jobs for TVP (The Vengeance Pack), which is a German distributor that releases beautiful editions of kung fu films, meticulously restored, with gorgeous collectible packaging. They do Shaw Brothers films and more rare, independent stuff too. I love working with these guys. They're hardcore Hong Kong cinema fans like me, and are committed to putting out the best, most complete versions possible for the fans. Their recent Limited Edition release of Black Mask (1996) had me drooling. And what an honor it was to get to do the cover for a Jet Li movie! In addition I'm also doing book covers for Scott Blasingame's next two NightDragon martial arts adventure novels, a cover for a first time writer's kung fu tome, and working on new shirt designs for 36 Styles (Kung Fu and Samurai film stuff). In between all that I have many personal ideas and projects, both planned and some already started, including what I hope will be an epic Jackie Chan tribute. If only I had more hands...