Interview with John Bell
2nd March 2015
With us today to discuss his work on art direction and concept design is John Bell; an incredible car and film aficionado who has put his unique vision into many classic special effects films. From his Academy Award-winning visual effects art direction on Back To The Future 2 to assistant art direction on the Academy Award-winning Rango, John has been living a career of many highlights.
However, today we are going to go back to the time of his career when he worked on a little film about extinct animals cloned to live in a theme park. A theme park that would be any paleontologist’s dream to visit. A place where nothing could go wrong. That little film, of course, is Jurassic Park.
Derrick Davis: Thank you, John, for joining us today.
John Bell: Thanks for having me.
Derrick: Before you were ever involved with Jurassic Park and other films, what was your inspiration for art to begin with?
John: My Dad is an artist and he encouraged my brothers and I to draw. Set up our toys, or look at photos and draw what we saw. Being a kid from the 60’s, it was hot rods, James Bond or Spaceships.
Derrick: Many artists who provide their talents for film crank out tons of concepts and beautiful works of art that generally only few actually get to see in production. Even “Making Of” books and documentaries only seem to show the surface of all the work art directors and illustrators put in. Do you wish that there was some more prominent way to display these vast troves of art, or do you consider the art being translated to film the pinnacle of what was put to paper?
John: You’re right, there are hundreds, even thousands of images created, if you consider storyboards, into the process of making a feature film. There’s no way for the general public to see it all, but I’d love to show, maybe in a documentary, all of the layers of development that go into the final film. As for the “art of” books, surprisingly very few of those get sold, so studios don’t bother making them most of the time… it’s sad.
Derrick: How did you become Art Director of Jurassic Park? What did the title entail, and was there creative freedom for you?
John: Before Jurassic Park, I had the great pleasure of working for Rick Carter on Back To The Future 2 & 3. My role was focused on visualizing 2015 (back in 1988) along with the Art Dept. he had in place. We hit it off and kept in touch after the BTTF films were finished. I was back at ILM finishing up on Rocketeer and decided to take the summer off; this was 1991. I’m in a remote part of Montana and get a phone call from Rick asking if I’d like to co-Art Direct Jurassic Park. I’d never heard of it, but the opportunity to work with Rick again sounded too good to miss, so I said “sure!”. When I arrived, a great deal of visual development had been done, along with a lot of storyboards, but Rick said, “I want you to see what’s been done, read the script and come up with whatever your take is on dinosaurs, the park, anything you’re interested in.” From that, I just started firing out sketches and storyboards. Some they liked, some they didn’t.
Derrick: The art department created concepts for the film working from galleys of the novel before it was published, so clearly you were involved early on. What did you think of the novel?
John: To this day I’ve never read the entire novel, just parts of it. I was reacting to what had been done to date, and what had not been visualized, like most of the vehicles.
Derrick: There were other artists and illustrators on board who did their own take on some of the same environments, such as the Visitor Center. Was there a little bit of a competitive atmosphere or were you all working as a team to bring a vision across?
John: Rick likes to bring in people he has chemistry with and luckily I was able to become one of them. If there was any competitiveness, I never caught wind of it. It was one of the best experiences of my career, and I feel very fortunate.
Derrick: Speaking of the Visitor Center, your design of it is epic and incredible. The exterior didn’t end up looking exactly like your design in the final film, but there were great ideas that were still from you. This was clearly a result of your impressive imagination that came from your introspective analysis of the John Hammond character; the creator of the park (who you did a costume sketch of). From The Making Of Jurassic Park book, we learned that you thought Hammond’s name sounded English, which led you to think perhaps he had a reserved and religious upbringing. Him wanting to bring dinosaurs back from extinction was a sort of born-again idea of his. The rebirth of the dinosaurs, which led to your idea of having a big egg-shape design on the door of the Visitor Center, with lines radiating off of it. Such a simple but effective use of design with an incredible amount of subtext put into it by you.
John: Well, the Visitor Center that made it to the film was really the brilliant brainstorm of Rick. Budget was a concern from the get-go. So as the project moved along, Rick conceived that the Visitor Center shouldn’t be quite finished. It not only saved money, it also gave the park a visual metaphor of being a skeleton amidst the T-Rex skeleton.
Derrick: Since the artists were working with the novel and early versions of the screenplay, many scenes all of you depicted were removed before filming even began. One of those you did was of the baby Triceratops in the park. Another was of John Hammond being left behind, alone in the park. How long were these scenes considered to be in the film before they were omitted? Do you wish any of them made it to the screen?
John: Having John being left behind was a cool sequence, albeit somewhat dark, not a [Steven] Spielberg ending. Since dinosaurs are so popular with kids, as well as adults, Steven wanted to make a film that wouldn’t scare away kids, but gave the audiences some suspense. He hit just the right balance in my mind. The opening scene of the novel was one that we thought could also go at the end. It’s a dark scene and didn’t fit with where he wanted to go.
Derrick: Were there any other omitted sequences you illustrated, such as the river chase and the aviary pterosaur attack, that you also contributed to? Were there other dinosaur species based on the novel you also portrayed?
John: Not that I recall. Those were visualized before I’d even come on board.
Derrick: I don’t think people realize just how much of the visual aesthetic of the film came from you. You designed the look of the main gate, night vision goggles, the hatchery, the embryo chamber, security gun, the ID badges/cards, paddock signs, the T-Rex paddock and fence, and many other details. What are some other aspects of your art direction you would like to point out you had a hand in? Any favorites?
John: Oh, I don’t know. Like I mentioned earlier, Rick gave me a long leash and credit for all I was able to contribute. Luckily Steven liked my ideas, but I was just trying to capture his vision for the film.
Derrick: One of the most iconic props of the film was the Barbasol can Dennis Nedry used to attempt to transport the dinosaur embryos off the island. Thanks to your appearance on the Jurassic Park Blu-Ray documentary, we learned from you that you chose the Barbasol brand for the can because of it’s visual aesthetic compared to the others. Did you also design the look of the mechanism inside the can that held the embryos?
John: Yeah, I went to the Walgreens on Ventura Blvd and Laurel Canyon Blvd [in California] one evening specifically looking for Barbasol. I didn’t think it was still a brand, so when I saw it, I went for it. The great design of the inside was from Michael Lantieri’s team. I wish I could recall the designer who made it, because it was cool. He mocked it up, they showed it to Steven and it went right into the film! A really rare thing to happen in film.
Derrick: I have to admit, I use Barbasol shaving cream because of Jurassic Park instead of any other brand. I’m sure there are many other Jurassic Park fans who will say the same thing. I think the Barbasol company owes you something for that, don’t you?
John: YEP! I hope someone is reading this.
Derrick: Did you get to keep that prop of the Barbasol can, or any other props?
John: No, I didn’t get to keep anything from the film. Sadly, most of all of it went into the dumpsters. I regret not figuring out some way of keeping some of the cool Visitor Center carvings, or signage.
Derrick: You also came up with the spectacular vehicle modification designs of the Ford Explorer, Jeep, and helicopter. How does the process of designing modifications and original vehicles differ from other aspects of art design?
John: Design is design, it’s all about pleasing proportions. Shoes, furniture, cars, logos; doesn’t matter, proportions are king. For film you need to consider another variable: you try to support the story, not detract from it. I believe there are a lot of designs in today’s films that are so complex and overly detailed that their impact is marred. My career started as a car designer, so designing these cars for JP, or BTTF or Rango was a real pleasure.
Derrick: You, among others, are credited for storyboarding Jurassic Park. Having seen many storyboards from the film, it is hard to tell exactly who did what. Which sequences do you recall storyboarding yourself?
John: You’re right, no one artist did an entire sequence. Dave Lowery, Tom Cranham, and Stefan Dechant, along with myself handled the vast majority of the boards. My favorite sequence is the T-Rex attack at night. I did have ideas that weren’t in the script, or [originally] boarded that made it into the film, it was very thrilling to have Steven react so positively to my ideas. The one I’m most proud of was giving a reason for Grant and Malcolm to save the kids in the Explorer. I figured they wouldn’t just sit there, as the existing boards had, so I came up with the idea of a flare, found in the car, to distract the T-Rex. This was the motivation to get the T-Rex away from harming the kids. But like I said, all of us brought great ideas to the table.
Derrick: How involved was Steven Spielberg with you? Were you ever able to visit the set or see any other side of the production?
John: Oh yeah, I was at Universal working in the Art Dept, going to the stages, checking on sets, working with painters, etc. Steven would drop in on the Art Dept every other day or so, look at progress and layout scenes with us to storyboard.
Derrick: After Jurassic Park was completed, you took a hiatus from films for a few years. What did you do in the meantime? What prompted the decision to leave, and then, the decision to return?
John: After JP, I went to work for Nike up in Portland. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make a life and career in LA. I have several big regrets, one was not taking the invite from Steven to become a Production Designer for him. Luckily I was still able to work with him on JP2 & JP3 as well as A.I. [Artificial Intelligence] through the generosity of Rick Carter.
Derrick: For the sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, you appear to have been less involved than the first film, and worked solely from your home in Northern California. The Making Of The Lost World: Jurassic Park book shows that you conceptualized various vehicles and the high hide. Was there anything else you designed for the film apart from them?
John: No, it was really limited to those things you mentioned. By working from home, Rick couldn’t give me the same level of responsibility.
Derrick: Many fans of the films are in love with your designs for the original vehicles and modifications you did for The Lost World: Jurassic Park. You clearly had a fun time designing them for the “hunters” and the “gatherers”. How many did you come up with?
John: Oh, maybe a half dozen sketches. That film isn’t etched into my head like the first JP.
Derrick: One of the vehicles you designed was the mobile trailer lab that is prominently featured in the film. However, Pamela Klamer also appears to be credited with the design and there is an interior painting by Sean Hargreaves. Did you also design the interior at one point?
John: I’d done an interior design that was 95% complete, but it wasn’t rendered as tightly as Sean’s illustration. I stand by my side of the story.
Derrick: Did you do any of the storyboards for The Lost World: Jurassic Park?
John: No, not that I can recall.
Derrick: If you had to choose ONE conceptual art piece you came up with from each of the Jurassic Park films you worked on, which would be your favorite from each?
John: I guess I have to say the Ford Explorer. SUV’s weren’t even popular at the time! I couldn’t pick from the other films.
Derrick: You mentioned earlier that you worked on Jurassic Park 3, but you appear to be uncredited for that film. What was the work you did for it?
John: I think it was some storyboarding, but honestly, I don’t recall.
Derrick: Were you approached to work on Jurassic World? If so, what did you do for it?
John: Well, I did some early work on Jurassic World, but I feel the story changed too much for me to say I had any impact. I did some concept work on it back in winter of 2014. Studies for a main gate and hotel, along with some graphics for one of the rides. Only a week or 2 worth of work.
Derrick: Are there any projects you have currently scheduled or are looking forward to in the future? Apart from the spectacular car concept you are working on for my upcoming novel, Invertiverse.
John: I just like the process of designing, if they turn people on, that’s icing on the cake. I like to work with people who believe my work helps bring their story to life.
Derrick: Well you are certainly bringing my story to life with your design! What has been one of the happiest moments of your career so far?
John: JP, BTTF2 and Rango. Extremely talented people who also happened to be fun, kind and generous.
Derrick: Finally, do you have any advice for anyone interested in pursuing art direction or any other career in the arts?
John: Draw what you love, keep an open mind, and open eyes. Nilo Rodis once told me, “The best designers are the ones with the best memories.” You never know when you’re going to need it at a moment’s notice.
Derrick: Thank you, John Bell, for taking the time to recollect the amazing process involved with the art direction and conception of Jurassic Park and it’s sequels. It was a pleasure having you with us!
John: Thank you and the fans of JP.
For more on John Bell and his amazing work, be sure to check out the John Bell Studio.
Derrick Davis is an aspiring writer and long-time Jurassic Park fan. He is currently writing a novel with a premise that involves alternate universes, including some dinosaurs. Art depicting a modified vehicle will also be completed by John Bell. Check out the website for more information, including Facebook and Twitter links at Invertiverse.