INTERVIEW: Ron Miller, Artist

Republibot 3.0
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Our guest today is Ron Miller, noted artist and author. In the last fifty years he’s done pretty much everything that the rest of us only dream about - industrial artist, art director for the Einstein Planetarium, artistic consultant for Disney and A&E, designed postage stamps, worked on the art direction for movies like Dune and Total Recall, written or co-written at least a skillion books and illustrated countless more; he’s won a Hugo and been nominated for several others, he personally translated new editions of Verne from the original French, and become the Co-director of Bonnestell Space Art. But mostly he’s known for producing hundreds upon hundreds of brilliant illustrations for galleries, book and magazine covers, films, you name it.
Mr. Miller, thank you for agreeing to talk with us today!

Ron Miller:
Thanks for asking me!

Republibot 3.0:
You’ve done an unbelievable amount of different styles of art in the last forty years, but you’re primarily known by most as someone who does primarily space art scenes - alien landscapes, planets seen from space, starscapes, things like that - what was it about that subject that got you involved in that, as opposed to more mundane terrestrial stuff? Formation of Earth: Formation of Earth by Ron Miller, used by permissionFormation of Earth: Formation of Earth by Ron Miller, used by permission

Miller:
I've loved space stuff since I was a kid. I've always been interested in astronomy, space travel, etc., literally for as long as I can remember. I would hurry home from school so I wouldn't miss Space Patrol and I ate up every book about space I could find...especially anything with Bonestell art in it. I can't say that this passion has abated in any way over the years.

Republibot 3.0:
As with all good-hearted people, I adore Bonestell! So moving from a very early passion for space art, you went on to become the art director for the National Air and Space Museum for several years before you went freelance in 1977. What made you decide to go solo?

Miller:
Technically, I was the art director for the planetarium there, not the entire museum (just keeping the facts straight!)...I went freelance largely because I wanted to get into some different kinds of work, especially science fiction illustration.

Republibot 3.0:
Whups, thanks for correcting me on that. It couldn’t have been too much after you went freelance when I first began seeing your stuff on the covers of paperbacks. I was instantly kind of hooked by your style, and I bought quite a few books I had no interest in just so I could own the covers. It wasn’t until I got a copy of “Space Art” by Starlog Magazine that I finally figured out who you were, though. Doing as many book covers as you have, I’ve always wondered How much of a work do you read before you illustrate it, and how much is editorially mandated? Clockwork Orange cover by Ron Miller, used by permissionClockwork Orange cover by Ron Miller, used by permission

Miller:
I try to read the entire book if it's possible---and even if an art director has specific ideas of their own it helps to get the background and character that the entire book provides. If time doesn't permit, then I'll at least closely scan a MS, looking for the overall flavor as well as any set-pieces (scenes that stand out visually) that might make good ideas for covers.

Republibot 3.0:
How much input does the author get in a situation like that?

Miller:
Well, there are mixed feelings about that. I sometimes like to be able to consult an author about details but I don't think authors should be allowed to make decisions about their covers. The simple reason is that they really can't be objective about their books. Of course, that doesn't hold true when I'm doing one of my own books! (koff koff)

Republibot 3.0:
heh-heh. This seems like a kind of ignorant question, given how much SF illustration you’ve done, but do you like Science Fiction? I’d assume ‘yes’, but I was rather surprised when I interviewed Varley and Tessa Dick a while back to see how little SF they actually read.

Miller:
I love SF!

Republibot 3.0:
Any particular favorite authors or SF shows you really like? Aside from Space Patrol, of course…

Miller:
I am especially fond of pulp SF from the 40s and 50s, but I have a lot of favorite authors: Sturgeon, Browne, Clement, Clarke---oh, I dunno---a long list. Among more modern authors I especially like Allen Steele.

Republibot 3.0:
How much scientific reading do you do to prepare for an illustration?

Miller:
Sometimes it takes more time to do the research on an astronomical illustration than it takes to do the final art. Fortunately, over the years, I've absorbed a pretty good education in astronomy. I also have a vast personal library and a great many contacts among scientists. For instance, I recently consulted with Dr. Caroline Porco, who is head of the Cassini imaging team, to cook up what I wanted to be the definitive depiction of a geyser on Enceladus.Ice Plumes on Enceladus, by Ron Miller, used by permission: Ice Plumes on EnceladusIce Plumes on Enceladus, by Ron Miller, used by permission: Ice Plumes on Enceladus

Republibot 3.0:
Wow! That’s got to be pretty exciting to be able to go straight to the well for something like that.

Miller:
The possessor of my favorite brain to pick is Bill Hartmann. He knows everything.

Republibot 3.0:
What's your favorite medium?

Miller:
Until a few years ago it was acrylic, but I've worked almost totally digitally for quite a while now and thoroughly enjoy it. Cryogeyser on Titan by Ron Miller, used by permission: Cryogeyser on TitanCryogeyser on Titan by Ron Miller, used by permission: Cryogeyser on Titan

Republibot 3.0:
I was wondering about that, because there’s a lot of digital stuff on your site and you've written a book on Digital Art- How much do you currently do digitally, vs. traditional media?

Miller:
Pretty much 100% digital. It's fun and there's something new to learn or discover with every new piece. It's a lot less messy, too.Digital Art, by Ron Moore: Digital Art, by Ron Moore, available at black-cat-studios.comDigital Art, by Ron Moore: Digital Art, by Ron Moore, available at black-cat-studios.com

Republibot 3.0:
Do you think we'll ever get beyond the "uncanny valley" effect with CGI characters?

Miller:
I hope so. They give me the creeps.

Republibot 3.0:
On the opposite side of things, the big trend at the moment is the whole “Steampunk” thing - taking traditional high-tech SF bric-a-brac and sort of “Victorianizing” it so everything looks clunky and riveted like it’s out of the James Mason version of the Nautilus. What’s your impression of this trend?

Miller:
Well, for someone who practically worshiped Jules Verne while growing up (I remember seeing 20,000 Leagues 9 consecutive times at our local theater when it was re-released in the early 60s!), I'm hardly in any position to gripe about steam punk! Until I sold the collection two years ago I owned more than 400 books by or about Verne, so it hardly needs be said that I'm all for the genre. My tetralogy of Bronwyn novels is steam punk, in fact.

Republibot 3.0:
There’s a little bit of that - a tiny proto-steam punk flair - to the 1984 version of “Dune.“ The movie has taken a lot of flack over the last quarter century, but the production design and the art in the movie can really only be described as sumptuous. What was it like working behind the scenes on that film? Was there anything you really wanted to do there that you didn’t get a chance to?

Miller:
I had a great time and to this day have nothing but respect and admiration for the people I worked with...in fact, I still keep in touch with many of them, including Raffaella and David. Since everything was new to me while working on Dune, I can't really say there was anything I missed doing: I wouldn't even have known what that might have been! One of the things I enjoyed most was seeing something I had drawn show up the next day as a real three-dimensional object I could hold in my hand. I still have several of the props I designed.

Republibot 3.0:
What did you keep?
Ornithopter by Ron Miller: Ornithopter for Dune (1984) by Ron MillerOrnithopter by Ron Miller: Ornithopter for Dune (1984) by Ron Miller
Miller:
I have the poison detector that I designed and Paul's oil-lens binoculars, several Fremen things, some costumes, an Atreides spaceship...etc.

Republibot 3.0:
Very cool. How did your “Dune” experience differ from when you were working on “Total Recall?“

Miller:
The only real difference was the size of the crew. Since the deLaurentiis version of "Total Recall" never went beyond pre-production, there were never more than half a dozen people working on it: myself, my wife, production designer Pier Luigi Basile and a couple of draftsmen/art directors. David Cronenberg was also a presence for a short time. This made a much more intimate working environment.

Republibot 3.0:
Finally, what do you read or look at when you're NOT working?

Miller:
I like to read SF (natch!) and cheesy hard-boiled detective novels from the 40s and 50s. One of my hobbies over the past couple of years has been using POD technology to offer reprints of classic space-related novels and non-fiction, especially titles that have not been reprinted in recent times---and in some cases, never reprinted since their original publication. Included among these is an entirely brand-new English translation of Verne's "From the Earth to the Moon". At the end of a day I also like to relax by adding a few panels to my ongoing series of comic books, "Velda: Girl Detective". Some friends and I even made a 13-minute "Velda" movie recently!

Republibot 3.0:
“The Strangler and the Strawberry Blonde,” right? On youtube.

Miller:
Yup! But it not only looks better on Vimeo or Veoh, the version on those sites is the best one.

Velda: Girl Detective from Ron Miller on Vimeo.

Well, thanks again for agreeing to talk to us today, and thanks again for just decades of great art. Anyone interested in checking out Mr. Miller’s work should go look at his excellent website here http://www.black-cat-studios.com/index.html

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