Whenever I meet someone who knows that I do work for MAD, I invariably get asked two questions. The first one is “Do they still publish that rag?”. The second is “How do you do the movie/TV parodies?”. Actually that question is usually phrased as a series of questions including “do you get to see the movie ahead of time?”, “does MAD provide you with pictures/copies of the film?”, “do you write the gags?”, and my personal favorite: “can you tell me where the bathroom is?” Over the next few days I will go through the process of doing a job for MAD from beginning to end, hopefully answering many of these questions in the process (except that last one).
First off, I have to get the job. MAD has no staff artists (or writers, for that matter). It’s all freelance, and unless you have a regular feature like “Spy vs. Spy” you aren’t given work in every single issue. Often I am waiting around for the phone to ring.
Waiting for my next MAD job…
MAD assigns jobs based on things like the style of art they want for a particular piece, the availability of the artist, etc. Of course, there are some things you can do to get the ball rolling…
Sending a reminder to the editors at MAD
Finally I’ll get that call. MAD art director Sam Viviano has a policy to only call an artist for a job when it’s a definite go and the decision has been made for that artist to do that particular job. Sam would never call me and advise me to go see a film or to clear my board for a job that is still just a maybe… and that is something any freelancer appreciates. It’s always exciting when Sam calls me for a job…
Even if that job has a ridiculously short deadline…
The first thing I get from the gang at MAD is a layout of the piece. For our example here I’ll use a TV parody I did a year or so ago of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition“. This is what I would get e-mailed to me from MAD (other pages as well, this is just the splash):
The artist is always the last stop on the wagon trail before the piece goes into the magazine. Before I get this layout, the writer has written and submitted a script, the editors have gone over it, argued and came to blows or called each other hurtful names a few times about it, finally making their changes (often taking out gags and reducing the number of panels/pages) and the art department assembles and lays out the articles with text and word balloons, panel placement and header/department text in place. That’s a lot of work before I even see the job… or at least they like to say it is. At any rate, this is what I get to work with. Sometimes Sam will do a ‘doodle’ on the splash to help set up the scene, primarily because the placement of the word balloons dictates where the characters speaking them need to be, and the one doing the layouts needs that set up. Regardless if I have a Sam doodle as a springboard or not (in this case not), the restrictions of the balloon placement complicates matters and makes the splash page and to a lesser extent the rest of the job into a kind of visual puzzle.
My job now is this: I have to place the characters in such a way as the word balloons make sense sequentially without the balloon ‘tails’ crossing or doing anything too hard to read within the environment set up by the story while doing (hopefully) convincing caricatures of several actors/actresses with many different expressions and angles throughout the story while simultaneously paying attention to storytelling design and panel layout/camera angles to advance the eye along the page while at the same time ‘selling the gag’ by which I mean I visually reinforcing and driving home the jokes written by the writer meanwhile adding visual gags of my own in the panel/backgrounds to add a second layer of humor all while trying to draw funny in the first place. That IS a lot of work, despite what those lazy-ass writers say. Memo to self: ask for a raise.
In the case of a movie, my first step is always to see the film if it’s in release. If, like in this case, it’s a TV show, I set the old Tivo to record some episodes and watch several. It’s important to get a good feel for the show and what it’s all about before trying to do a parody of it. It’s the little details that make for a good lampooning of a show, and you don’t capture the little things unless you are familiar with the show. I will often tap friends or relatives who watch a TV show regularly about what to look for (one of my neighbors pointed out to me that one of the designers in the show “Trading Spaces” was always barefoot when she did her work, so I gave her stinky, dirty feet the whole parody). I always have a lot more fun doing a parody of something I really like (or really hate), as opposed to a show or movie I don’t care at all about.
After getting familiar with the show, I start digging up reference. MAD will be sending me a bunch of scrap of the main characters as they have art staff Google pictures and print them out for me, but I do a ton of research myself as well. If there is a book out I’ll go buy it (tax deductible, you know). I get all the mindless celebrity-chasing entertainment magazines and clip pictures out of them as well. If an actor or actress I’m drawing was recently in a film or TV show that is out on DVD, I’ll rent that and do some screen captures to use as reference (that’s right, Steve Jobs, that’s a legitimate and FAIR USE reason why users of your computers should be allowed to screen capture from DVD) but I primarily farm the Internet for pictures. I assemble them on 13×19 inch sheets and print them out so they are handy. I also print the layouts at print size onto a decent piece of drawing paper. With my reference in hand and my layouts ready, I can get started with the roughs.
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