Zack Snyder’s fantasy shoot-em-up Sucker Punch is currently rampaging through theaters, a visual-binge combination of CGI and gorgeous graphic design. Much of the Sucker Punch world was inspired and illustrated by renowned visual artist Alex Pardee, a jack of many trades in the visual-design universe.
Prior to making the leap into big-screen surrealism, Pardee honed his skills designing album covers for numerous bands, as well as a kickass alternate poster design for Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Inglourious Bastards. His enthusiasm for the medium is boundless, and his willingness to continuously kick down the walls of expectations has led to a hugely promising career.
The Art of Sucker Punch book is also available, showcasing a considerable amount of Alex’s mindblowing work on the film.
We tracked Alex down just before the release of Sucker Punch to explore the inspirations and process behind his work on the film, as well as some of his other projects, the most recent of which includes a Tiger Blood work inspired by Charlie Sheen with the inscription: "Death To The Trolls".
There was plenty to discuss, including his own exhibit – Vertigo: A Decade of Hunting Nightmares, so we’re presenting the conversation in two installments. Here’s the first!
CraveOnline: My understanding is that you had no source material for the Sucker Punch art, outside of Zack Snyder’s head – is this correct? How were those concepts first conveyed?
Alex Pardee: Yes and no. It’s true that “Sucker Punch” is the first project that Zack has taken on that was completely derived from his imagination, along with his writing partner Steve Shibuya. However, though I came on board at the very early stages of development around May 2009, there was already a small handful of some loose concepts as to what the imaginary worlds might look like that Zack had worked with his creative team on developing. What my first job was on the production side was take this handful of imagery that was pre-existing, along with the story, and all of this additional inspiration that Zack had given me, and mash that all together to create an image to release to the public along with the announcement of the film that could sum up ALL of those feelings and visuals into ONE image, without giving anything away from the film.
Zack and I worked very well together and we were excited about that initial collaboration, so he kept me on board during the remainder of the pre production to work alongside the rest of his creative team and add some of my personal art touches and concepts to some more of the film.
Before I knew it, I was designing weapons and sets and working with blacksmiths and master engravers and prop builders. It was very surreal. It still is!
CraveOnline: What was the launching point for the Sucker Punch concept designers, beyond Zack’s mind?
Alex Pardee: From the very beginning it was clear that Sucker Punch was a conglomerate of all of these visual elements and genres that had inspired Zack at the conception of the story, but put together in a seamless way that not only epic, but made sense and was a fun ride THROUGH these worlds and genres. He had referenced things to me like Frazetta paintings, Tolkien, anime, old Samurai movies, classic Burlesque flicks and so forth. And he also put a heavy emphasis on music and played me some samples of these juxtaposed sequences where you have an old WW1 style scene but with Bjork singing and it sounded beautiful.
CraveOnline: The challenge in building off of someone else’s loose ideas, such as Snyder’s, is a considerable departure from staying in your own head to create. How did that affect your approach to the process behind the Sucker Punch art?
Alex Pardee: In my case commercial work such as this has always been a challenge for that very reason. Not so much because other people don’t have cool visions, but because I have never really been confident with my technical skills to be able to do JUSTICE to those visions of other creative people. When I am doing my own fine art, there is no one telling me that this monster isn’t supposed to have 17 eyeballs and fat kneecaps, so if I think it looks cool aesthetically, I’ll do it. When working with others, there is a lot more discipline in it, which is a positive experience because it challenges you to learn and to level up.
In this case with Sucker Punch and Zack Snyder I was scared shitless! I had been a fan of Zack’s movies since I saw his Dawn of the Dead in theaters 4 days in a row. I knew he was an artist himself. I knew that his imagination was insane. Plus, the 3 main things that I was going to be drawing was girls, guns & robots, none of which I had ever really designed before! So that was intimidating. But as soon as we started working together it became very clear that Zack is one of the best collaborators I have seen because he trusts his partners 100 percent. So that put me at ease right away. So after being scared for a quick minute, I just jumped head first into it all and started working.
CraveOnline: How did you connect to the story for the work? You went through some trying times as a kid… was there any connection to the narrative?
Alex Pardee: You know, I definitely connected with the story in an emotional sense. Zack and I had talked about my past as he was originally sharing the Sucker Punch story with me, which involves a girl being institutionalized and planning her escape by venturing into her own imaginary worlds. I had done a small stint in a mental hospital when I was about 14 years old as I was struggling with anxiety and depression, and before all of the wonder drugs like Prozac were just thrown at anyone and everyone, there was a lot more experimentation needed with medication. I wasn’t in there too long, but it had a major effect on me. At the time I thought it was a negative effect, but looking back I have grown to see it as positive. Being alienated and feeling alone, and feeling sick, and feeling like I couldn’t “escape” in a way allowed my brain to utilize my imagination more fluidly. I re-discovered drawing while in the hospital and the only way for me to feel better was to just scribble and imagine. I had zero skill, but the act of privately creating made me happy, so I knew that no matter what I did with my life, drawing and creating would always be a part of who I am because I knew that it would always make me feel better, or at least take my mind off of things and allow me to escape.
CraveOnline: How does the finished film product compare to the design concepts you laid out? Any favorite/least favorite interpretations?
Alex Pardee: Almost everything that I had my hand on was a complete collaborative effort, so you would have to ask ALL of us that question, haha. However, the one thing that I am most proud of because I got to design every aspect of it from the ground up is BabyDoll’s katana. Zack wanted to push the boundaries of a Katana design while staying true to the spirit and the design of a traditional Katana. So I came up with this idea to breakdown the entire story of BabyDoll’s journey into symbols and icons, and then weave those all together into one big 22 inch long design and engrave that along the entire length of the blade. We ended up doing a lot of trial and error to get it to look right but once we did, it turned out amazing!
And seeing that sword on screen makes my insides melt with joy. So rad.
CraveOnline: A Juxtapoz profile on you claims your involvement with Sucker Punch all started with a Watchmen painting… Explain?
Alex Pardee: My involvement was a lucky mixture of fortunate events that I still am a little weirded out by! Watchmen is one of my favorite graphic novels ever, and so I followed Zack’s journey online along with the rest of the fanboy world through his creation of the supposedly “unfilmable” story. I was reserved at first, but when the first trailer with the Smashing Pumpkins song hit I knew right away that he had done it. The movie was still a ways from being released, but I got so inspired just by that little footage that I made a fun Watchmen-inspired painting and put it up online. I have a really loyal and awesome online fan-base that helps me share my work around, and I got word from Zack’s production company “Cruel & Unusual” that Zack liked the image and wanted to buy a print. Well, as honored as I was, the prints were SOLD OUT! So I called them back and instead, I offered to send down the original framed painting. They mentioned that it was his birthday coming up so I ended up coming down and giving that painting to Zack for his birthday. That is originally how we became friends and mutual fans of each other’s crafts.
CraveOnline: Can you describe the experience of the Warlock-Sheen portrait piece? How did it originate, beyond pure maniacal fascination?
Alex Pardee: I love random humor and visual nonsense, and sometimes pop culture and “memes” and media stories inspire me to just have fun with art. I became fascinated by the Charlie Sheen story immediately, as everyone else in the country did, simply because of its absurdity. But more so than Charlie himself, I was amazed by the phenomenon that surrounded it. Simply put, a week ago, if I drew a picture of Charlie Sheet with a bloody tiger-hat, it would JUST be looked at as complete nonsense. But by Sheen saying a few silly lines in an interview, he turned something that meant absolutely nothing into something that was ICONIC! That is an incredible form of influence.
Charlie Sheen had literally got millions of people’s attention simply by acting weird. Within 24 hours, almost our entire country forgot about everything else that was going on in the world because we all secretly wanted to sadistically watch this guy go out in public and possibly crash and burn in a train wreck. That was both absurd and fascinating to me that it happened so quickly. So, even though I, too was on the sidelines watching for a train wreck, I felt a creative urge to jump on that train alongside of him for a moment. So I created the “Tiger Blood” piece for no other reason than it was fun. But the best thing about this piece, is that because of the infinite power of the internet, Charlie DID see this piece and he loved it! So it led to me actually creating a brand new exclusive drawing of him as a Warlock for his new personal ustream show, “Charlie’s Korner” and he debuted it on his broadcast this last Tuesday. It’s been a weird week haha.
CraveOnline: Your Cynaphobia piece seems related, in the wearing-the-beast sort of way. Conscious connection?
Alex Pardee: Perhaps. But definitely not conscious. Looking back that is actually the THIRD “head on someone’s head” piece that I have created in the last 2 months (the 3rd one will be unveiled soon but I can tell you it is for the internet supergroup Team Unicorn) but each one was a completely independent idea. I seem to get attracted to certain visual cues and incorporate them into my art for a certain amount of time. I went through a tentacle stage, a huge eyeball stage, a squishy stage, and so forth. A lot of that imagery still pokes its head into my work as I just continue to build my world how I kind of wish the world really looked.
CraveOnline: How is Zerofriends been working out these days? New projects on the horizon?
Alex Pardee: Zerofriends is awesome. To those unfamiliar with it, Zerofriends is the name of the art & apparel company that I own that is basically a marketable extension of my personal art. We sell prints and shirts and books based around some of my popular images and it’s fun to actually own the company because then I get to be the art director and take risks and learn from the inside. We just got done doing a year long tour of “pop-up stores” around the country where we were basically professional gypsies and set up temporary 3-month retail stores in NY, LA & SF to introduce our brand to those cities. Hopefully we can do more of that soon. Immediately, however, we are on track to open a more permanent retail store in Oakland, CA, and continue to grow our brand by working with other artists that inspire me and fit the overall aesthetic of Zerofriends.
CraveOnline: You wanted to go to film school right out of high school, but the thought of having to depend and collaborate with other people scared you off. How much of that independence plays into what you do now, and does it hinder you on any level these days? Your collaborations have certainly expanded…
Alex Pardee: That was me being afraid and not confident enough to think that anyone else would give a shit about my ideas. I was very introverted after my bouts with anxiety and throughout high school, so as much as I loved movies, and dreamt about making them, the thought of sharing my opinion and possibly getting told I have stupid ideas was enough to just cause me to sit in a corner by myself and build my own worlds on paper. But slowly, I became ok with sharing those ideas, not necessarily because they were good, but just because I started believing in myself more and more, and I would share shards of my imagination at first with my friends, and they would be supportive, and then with the internet, and as harsh as the internet can be, it toughens you up and forces you to be ok with criticism.
Now, I am simply so inspired by a lot of other creators, artists, writers, directors, etc, that the dream NOW is to collaborate with them simply to absorb their magic! And the only way to do that is just to DO it, you know? I found after collaborating early on with some good friends, like artist Robert Bowen, that collabs simply push you to find new directions and adapting, and they are great experiences regardless of the outcome.
So I hope to continue join forces with more people in the future.
CraveOnline: A while back you mentioned a desire to have some kind of involvement in game creation. Any progress in that world?
Alex Pardee: Yes, as a matter of a fact there IS! I just beat STACKING and Dead Space 2! That’s progress in my book! In reality though, no progress yet, but I can’t wait until that day because yes, I have loved video games as long as I have loved comics, movies and eating. So hopefully someday.
CraveOnline: Is there a method to balancing the random nature to some of your work with your ability to control the direction of the piece? How intuitive is the design once you set into it?
Alex Pardee: The simple answer is with commercial work it’s knowing what aspects to discipline yourself in, and with fine art and personal work its knowing how to throw out that discipline and do whatever the fuck you want.
Check back soon for part two!
Check out Alex’s blog for some amazing samples of his artwork at http://eyesuckink.blogspot.com/.
A Limited Edition of The Art of Sucker Punch book is also available, which comes with an exclusive giclée print, created and signed by Alex Pardee.