To See The Future, Hold Up A Mirror

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Art and technology have always been deeply intertwined, blending together to offer inspiration but also reflection. This is clearly the case with the work of illustrator and concept artist Fred Gambino. Gambino has a broad body of work, ranging from set design in Marvel’s 2014 hit Guardians of the Galaxy, to the Oscar-nominated Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius, to his own key ongoing body of work, Dark Shepherd. His work, which includes a variety of forms including painting and written work. The art of Fred Gambino explores traditional science fiction themes while holding up a mirror so we see present – and future – with new eyes.

Fred Gambino’s experiences working with a large variety of different mediums and science fiction experience make him extremely qualified to provide commentary on the intersection of science fiction and the real world. What has been released thus far of Dark Shepherd depicts contact between inquisitive humans and a technologically advanced alien species. Dark Shepherd promises to ask what an exploratory and curious human race might become, as well as provide social commentary on embedded issues such as discrimination and sexism. Dark Shepherd promises to explore a key question of international relations, and will likely provide insight into what first contact could look like, as well as what humanity itself might become in the far future. In the opening chapter, a team of exploring humans encounters a strange alien ship with an alien life form aboard. The approach and attitude of the explorers and this initial interaction demonstrate one possibility of how this kind of first encounter might play out or be viewed by the humans involved. Given past examples of nations colliding for the first time (Cortez and the Aztecs spring to mind), the insight given by Gambino is of significant interest.

Science fiction, to paraphrase Gambino himself, holds a mirror up to society, and Dark Shepherd promises to do just that, providing key insights into what humanity may have to do and sacrifice in order to become a multi-planetary species. A gifted and versatile artist, Gambino is well positioned to use science fiction as a form of commentary. He has shown through the wide variety of stories and mediums he has worked in that he is capable of doing exactly this.

Science fiction as an art form is a powerful tool that can reflect social, economic, and political circumstances as well as shape the future. This is reflected heavily in his work and in the process through which he creates his art.

The following excerpts are from an Art of the Future project e-mail interview in which Fred Gambino discusses his work.


What inspired you to start The Dark Shepherd?

It really began when I was working as a concept artist in Dallas back in 2006. The concept team were displaced from all over the world and without families to go to at night we soon became a close-knit group. Once a week we would have “film night”, taking turns to host the event, choose a film to watch, discuss and otherwise generally chew the fat. One evening one of the guys asked of everyone in the room,”What’s your story?” “What’s my story,’ I thought, ‘Is he asking for a life history?”’ But I had forgotten I was with Hollywood folk. He meant, what was the story that we were working on, our own story, script, book, whatever, because of course, everyone must have one. I discovered that I was the only person in the room who didn’t.

Several years later I was out cycling and the story popped into my head. Film night in Dallas came back to me and I resolved to write it up and so finally have “My Story”. There was another reason. I have never created much personal work, I’ve always been too busy and a lifetime working to briefs and deadlines meant I found it difficult to decide what to do. Dark Shepherd was my way of writing myself a brief and as a bonus I found I rekindled an interest in writing that I had ignored for a long while. Now I had the brief but still lacked a deadline.

I wasn’t sure what to do with the synopsis so I sent it to my agent. She in turn sent it to a literary agent, who said, “I love this, but what is it, a novel, graphic novel, a screen play – we need to turn it into something.” Encouraged by this I decided to turn it into a script and then a novel. I found that process harder to do but that is what I have been doing, on and off, ever since.

Dark Shepherd languished over the next couple of years as I found myself working on other projects. Then, out of the blue, Titan books approached me, interested in doing an Art of Fred Gambino book. Of course, a retrospective of the last 15 years of my career would be fantastic but I suggested we add something extra and include parts of the script (now called Dark Shepherd) with new illustrations specially created for the book. Titan were great and pretty much let me do what I wanted and I finally had a deadline.

The book was published in 2014- The Art of Fred Gambino: Dark Shepherd published by Titan books.

If anyone wants to read a teaser chapter of the novel they can here.

When you work on a project, how do you go about conceptualizing what technology and the world might look like in the future?

What constitutes a convincing future design? The best science fiction, in my opinion, isn’t about predicting the future, it’s about holding a mirror up to the society of the time it is written and this also applies to design. The movie Metropolis has this enormous city, an exaggeration of the American cities developing at great speed at the time, but the aircraft are biplanes because biplanes were the most convincing flying tech of the day, one that the audience could believe in.

Another example is the first Alien movie. The Nostromo control room is filled with keyboards and CRT’s, cutting edge and convincing to an audience in the 70’s.

Prometheus has glowing holograms, something that we think is convincing future tech in 2017 but will no doubt look just as dated as the original Alien to an audience in 2050.

What I’m saying, in a long-winded way, is that a convincing future design is usually an extrapolation of the tech at the time the design is executed. No doubt if the designers of metropolis had jet planes flying through those skyscrapers the audience wouldn’t have thought it so convincing. What, planes without propellers?

So what does this boil down to as far as a concept designers job goes? In a nutshell you reference the real world, then exaggerate, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. It explains why so many successful concept artists began their careers as industrial designers. Of course, a lot of what we do is dictated by the production designer or director and often the job is to visualize what they have in mind. The brief may involve reference images which are used as a starting point or it may be text, like the brief I had for the Kaiju hauler in Firebreather. “Very big with lots of wheels.”

Concept work is never done in isolation with a lot of back and forth between all the creatives involved. I love that aspect of it actually. Having spent many years working on my own as an illustrator, it was a real breath of fresh air to work in a studio with other designers and I always think the work is better for it.

You worked on environment design for Guardians of the Galaxy, how do you try to make technology and environment link up in your work, and how do you see that influencing the real world?

Well, Guardians was interesting from a design point of view as they specifically wanted a retro 70’s look. The films are a lot of fun, I enjoyed both of them enormously and really enjoyed working on the first one, but again, they are not meant to be predictions of future. They are fantasy films with starships in place of dragons and they don’t even try to give lip service to physics as we understand it. The most they do, as far as influencing the real world, is to maintain and propagate the idea that one day we will leave the Earth and colonize other worlds, first the solar system and then out to the stars. A proposition that seems increasingly unlikely to me as we begin to understand the true issues involved. My belief is that if humanity does spread into space it will be by creatures who bear little resemblance to us, probably bio engineered to cope with rigors of life in space.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about technology’s influence on humanity vs. humanity’s influence on technology?

The two seem to go hand in hand. I am ultimately optimistic although I think it will get worse before it gets better. We just aren’t reacting to the problems we face fast enough, problems of our own making. Global warming, over population, depletion of resources. It’s entirely possible we might use all our energy reserves before we have the chance to develop new ones or poison our eco system before we develop clean ones; thus, ending the entire technological experiment. A possible answer to Fermi’s paradox. Technological civilizations may just not be viable. I think, on the whole, there are enough people out there who know the problems and are seeking to address them so that we might just pull back from the brink, but it’s by no means certain.

What do you think life in 2040 will look like?

Assuming a positive outcome to the previous question, I think the next big revolution, following the industrial and digital ones, will be biological. I think we will increasingly design ourselves and other biological systems for specific purposes. That may give rise to the spacefaring variation of humanity I mentioned earlier, effectively creating new branches of the species. I see biology and technology fusing together with more devices actually implanted into us. I don’t see the cyborgs of popular fiction, replete with Borg like pipes and eye pieces, but a technology that is largely invisible, working behind the scenes. Not a great look for film designers of course.

I expect AI will play an increasingly major role, but whether true AI is possible is something else the jury is still out on. Like star travel, it will require massive new understandings and breakthroughs in physics and biology, ones that at the moment we can’t even imagine. Until those breakthroughs come, true AI and star travel will remain fantasy.

Computers are set to change society hugely however, as more and more white collar jobs as well as blue collar are taken up by them. It will be interesting to see how this pans out as I’m not sure how consumers will be able to buy goods in a society where there is little for the majority to do and or how the manufactures will stay in business. 3D printing will exacerbate this issue- as it gets more sophisticated and available and everyday goods are simply printed rather than bought. We are set to see huge changes in the way our societies function. I guess that could all be in full swing by 2040.

I imagine there might be some attempt to put colonies on the moon and Mars but I’m not sure how likely that is anymore. Twenty years ago I would have said almost certainly, but the problems are huge- even if the fiscal and social issues are met, unless there is a compelling reason to go that we aren’t aware of yet. I don’t see us able or willing to put the necessary resources in place, especially in the face of all the other problems humanity will be dealing with. I don’t think anyone back in the late sixties thought that the American space program would fade away as it has done.

The moon was supposed to be the first step. By now the future pundits had us living permanently on the moon and Mars. Instead we are just about clinging to near Earth orbit and it’s by no means certain how long the ISS will be maintained. Life for lunar or Martian colonists will be hard, a constant step away from explosive decompression or radiation poisoning and low or zero gravity presents serious health issues in the long term. It’s hard for the public to see the benefits of the massive amounts of money needed, especially when so many people here are living in poor conditions.

What role do you think science fiction plays in influencing the future?

I think it has a huge and growing influence, ever since Jules Verne and HG Wells, who incidentally were also showing a mirror to their own societies. Wells helped to push the idea of interplanetary travel and Verne predicted something like a nuclear reactor and submarines of course. Engineers and scientists, excited by the industrial revolution took up those ideas. I hear a lot of scientists and engineers today say they were influenced by Star Trek or Star Wars as children. The idea of space travel, flying cars or AI is implanted in them and so when they are old enough they set about trying to make it a reality.

Back in the 70’s there were a series of books published that went under the umbrella name of the Terran Trade Authority written by Stewart Cowley; titles of which were Great Space Battles, Space Wreck, Spacecraft 2000-2100 and Star Liners. They include some of my early work. It’s my painting on the front cover of Space Wreck. Brian Cox, who is something of a celebrity physicist in the UK, the English equivalent of Neil deGrasse Tyson, presented one of these books on his TV show and cited it as a major influence in his life. They helped instill a sense of wonder which eventually led to his career as a physicist. The books, which were low budget and not really expected to amount to much, have had a lasting influence. There are web sites and Facebook pages devoted to them and people constantly refer to them when they hear my name. I had this happen to me at Comicon one year. “Fred Gambino, wow, Great Space Battles”. In fact I went for an interview once and the first things the guy interviewing me said was, “I have one thing to say to you, Terran Trade Authority.” I got the job.

I’m happy to have been part of something that has been so influential and I think all those artists working back then left a lasting impression that colored peoples expectations of the future. Change was something that used to happen slowly, now we expect it, we wait for it with anticipation. That has made science fiction mainstream today, even though a lot of what we consume is fantasy, it does help instill ideas.

What do you do for inspiration?

I read a lot, I watch movies, I go to art galleries, all the usual stuff I guess. I don’t play games although I have worked on games. They take up too much time. I cycle a lot, 50 mile rides. Not only does this keep me fit but my mind can free associate and I solve many problems. If I have a problem I can’t resolve it often pays me to get the bike out rather than grimly trying to brute force an answer and as I said earlier, the whole Dark Shepherd story came to me while I was riding.

What are you reading, writing or playing right now that you can’t put down?

I’m back to writing Dark Shepherd. The muse comes and goes. Although the gist of the story is the same I’ve re written the start three times and it’s quite different from the original now. I think it is finally in a good place to proceed.

I read a lot of science fiction but also a lot of other genres. I’m not a big fan of horror but I just re-read Stephen King’s Green Mile, my favorite book of his. I also recently finished the first book of the Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin, so I have two others to read. At the moment though I don’t actually have a book on the go. I do have an oil painting on the easel, a Dark Shepherd image, which I’m itching to find the time to finish.