STARBURST talks with Irish writer/artist Matt Griffin to discover how he put together The Ayla Trilogy, as well as what it was like to design incredible artwork for huge sci-fi worlds such as Star Wars, Back to the Future and Dune!
STARBURST: How and when did you get into both illustration and writing?
Matt Griffin: I think like most people in my line of work, I drew obsessively from the moment I could hold a crayon. I was also always very much into stories - I read voraciously, I watched and re-watched films from a very young age - Ghostbusters 26 times in a row was my record! It tended to be the fantastical side of things, naturally for a kid - but I maintained that love of non-reality all my life, and still do. So my imagination was permanently off in other worlds.
I think I had a kind of natural thing for writing - not being the best writer, but I have always managed to be very descriptive in the way I do it, and I ‘got’ the rhythm of words. I guess I mean: I know how to put words in an order that sounds nice and describes well! And so I was always creating in that way - drawing characters, writing little stories. However, while writing a book was on a lengthy bucket list, I never thought it was something that would actually happen. That it did was a combination of luck, right-place-right-time, and grasping an opportunity when it presented itself.
It helped that my parents actively encouraged my creativity. My Dad is also a movie nut, my whole family like to read. There is a lot of creative blood in our veins! Music, art, acting - my brother Luke is an actor, film and books are all family pursuits. So illustration and writing are both something I’ve done my whole life.
The path to commercial art came much later - I was 29 when I took the plunge to become a freelance illustrator back in 2008. But I think it was inevitable long before that.
How did you get the idea for The Ayla Trilogy?
Well, writing a book, as I said, was way down on a long bucket list; not way down because I didn’t really want it as much as other stuff - more that I thought I had more chance of winning the lottery! But I have always kept notebooks full of ideas for books and films. That I got the chance was pure serendipity.
I was working for the Irish publisher O’Brien Press as a colourist on a graphic novel. The Art Director, Emma Byrne, asked me out of the blue if I had any stories of my own I’d like to pitch. I still don’t know how she knew I might be a writer. She explained that they would be interested to see if I had anything Irish-themed - being an Irish publisher - and she knew I liked Irish mythology, and also that I had a dark imagination! Maybe something for slightly older kids. So - did I have anything in those notebooks that ticked these boxes? I said I had the very thing.
That was a small fib. What I had was a scribbled sketch of an evil king made of tree roots, and a name: ‘The Red Root King’. But I went for a walk in the woods a day or two later and came up with the bones of a story. I wanted to start with my protagonist in mortal danger from the first sentence, and work back from that. And I wanted to fuse the modern world with the magic of ancient Ireland; to take present-day kids, and see what happened to their relationships and character when faced with the made-up fact that ancient Irish magic is actually very real and very dangerous.
I pitched the idea, they liked it and asked me to write two chapters (being completely unproven as a writer). Based on the feedback from those, they then asked me to write four more chapters. Once I had six done, they agreed to publish it and I set about writing the rest - it’s called A Cage of Roots. I ended it on a cliff-hanger, and so pitched a second, Storm Weaver, which was published a year later. I ended that one on a cliff-hanger too [laughs] so the following year the third, The Spiral Path, came out and the trilogy was complete.
It’s currently doing the rounds on the pitch circuit for a TV adaptation - written by the amazing Will Collins, Emmy-nominated writer of The Song of the Sea and the new film Wolfwalkers so there’s another reason: if it does get made, you can be one of those people who knows more than everyone else because you read the books.
How did you get involved with the deluxe edition of Dune, and what were some of your highlights from working on this classic sci-fi book?
That was a dream come true. A couple of years ago I was experimenting with textures - I make a lot with paper, ink etc. that I use in my art. One looked to me like a kind of desert storm, so I decided to make an image of Paul, which I then posted online. I didn’t expect the reaction it got - it was shared a lot. One of the people who saw it was Adam Auerbach, a Penguin Art Director who I had worked with before. He mailed me to say they were producing a new edition under their Ace Books label and asked if they could license that piece for the cover. I don’t normally leap up and punch the air, but I did that day.
But - my dream was to illustrate the book. So I had the wherewithal to ask if I could, and while it was never intended as a fully illustrated edition, he did say that I could illustrate the endpapers and the inside of the dust jacket. I got to work and a dream was fulfilled. The highlight has undoubtedly been the fan reaction.
You also got to work on Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge - A Crash of Fate; what was it like to work in such an iconic world?
Yes, another bucket list item! The setting for Galaxy’s Edge stories is a new one - Black Spire Outpost on Batuu - it was amazing to see how they created this rich new sandbox with deep story lines through graphic novels and novels and it was a real joy to play a tiny, minuscule part in that.
They provided me with a bunch of Black Spire concept art, and the plot of Zoraida Córdova’s book and from that I created some roughs - that tends to be how it works. They chose the one they thought most dramatic, and I got to work. Drawing a landscape from that kind of angle was quite new to me, so it was challenging but a lot of fun. And I got to draw a TIE-fighter, even though it’s tiny. I’d love to do more.
You worked with London Film and Comic Con to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future with an exclusive print. How did this collaboration come about, and how did you approach doing artwork for one of the most famous sci-fi cars in history?
Yeah that was a great one. It started with Michael Wood and his licensing company Under the Floorboards. A good few years ago, he asked me if I’d like to make a Back to the Future poster as a limited edition screen print - and of course, I said yes. So I made a rough for him to send in to Universal for approval as that’s how these things work. But they liked it so much they decided they wanted to make it an official 30th Anniversary poster. We were on conference calls with them where they were saying things like ‘Steven loves it!’ and they were talking about Spielberg!
In the end, it was litho printed in a high edition size and given away at the London Film and Comic Con in return for a donation to The Michael J Fox Foundation. I was flown over and got to enjoy my first con experience. We were supposed to meet the cast too, but by Sunday afternoon it still hadn’t happened and I had to leave to catch my flight home. When I landed I turned on my phone to numerous voicemails - I had missed the meeting by about 15 minutes! But I did get a letter from Bob Gale saying how much he liked it, so that more than made up for it. It also caused a little stir here at home in that I had a government minister come to my studio to have his picture taken with me and the poster for the local paper! Crazy and a bit funny.
The license didn’t cover actor likenesses - but that suited me as I knew I wanted to make the DeLorean the centrepiece. And I thought a good moment to depict would be the car just before it disappears - it’s at 88mph and the ‘wormhole’ is just opening up in front of it. I thought it would make for something dynamic and exciting. I’m still fond of the poster, which is rare for old work. It’s incredibly sad news that Ron Cobb, the designer of the BTTF DeLorean has just died. He was a true legend.
You've worked on many other incredible projects. Which one do you think deserves a shout out right now, and why?
Yes I’ve definitely been very lucky! Another dream job recently ticked was working with The Folio Society. I worked on Arthur C Clarke’s incredible Rendezvous With Rama. Having a book with them has been a huge goal of mine so to do a sci-fi classic like that was more than I could hope for. They make such beautiful objects, and take such care over the production. It’s a real thrill to have done it.
At the moment things are evolving in what to me is a very exciting way. I’m starting to take baby steps into film and TV development - somewhere I really want to be. And the other new avenue I’m very excited about is in licensed prints. I had been in and around the fringes of that collectible scene with things like the Back to the Future poster, but in recent times have been helped to progress further by artist friends like Matt Ferguson and galleries like his own Vice Press and Bottleneck in New York.
So far, I’ve had three releases with Bottleneck that have thankfully gone down well. I have three more lined up including recently announced prints for Lynch’s Dune - I put a lot into that one as you can imagine - and Alien, and working on the next slate too. It’s very exciting. The other thing I am getting into is Crypto Art - blockchain-verified limited edition digital art. I’m very lucky to have a company called KnownOrigin partnering me in this endeavour, and we’re just plotting out the launch now - coming soon!
What else can we expect to see from you in 2020/2021?
I’ll be working on some more show development, including developing and pitching my own concepts. I’m hoping to break a little more into concept art and production design, although I’ll have to up my game! I work with a great guy called Ben Bow and his online store Uniquely Geekly to sell my artist copies of prints. We’ve just been discussing the possibility of selling little original drawings so expect more by way of art sales on that front.
I’ve started a new book that I am very excited about. It’s a big fantasy with a map and everything. The current title is High Wail Rook and it’s about a runaway on a fantasy continent, following every year of his life from 14 to 26 or so. I’m pretty pleased with it so far. Apart from that - more art! More of everything. I’m very excited.
You can find out more about Matt Griffin by heading to https://www.mattgriffin.online/ and following on the socials: https://www.facebook.com/mattgriffinillustration https://twitter.com/mattgriffinart http://www.instagram.com/mattgriffinillustrator