Meet the Artist Behind the Animorphs Covers That Destroyed Your Mind as a Kid
David Mattingly perfected the art of turning kids into animals in the most subtly insane ways possible.
To attend Loscon is to travel from the present to a simpler time, before the ascension of the all-swallowing marketplace-slash-cosplay-orgy that is Comicon. Run by the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society—the oldest continuously operating science-fiction club in the world—Loscon found a gaggle of nerd lifers wearing an assortment of commemorative jackets and button pins, wandering in and out of musty, 80s-era conference rooms at the LAX Marriott.
It is here that I met David Mattingly, who was at the convention to speak on a sparsely attended panel of illustrators discussing the question of how artists can make a living in the age of piracy and low publishing sales. Throughout the conversation onstage, Mattingly—who sported a goatee and a thicket of hair tied at the nape of his neck—seemed relatively unworried about the future of his profession. This is not because his own illustration business is still booming, but because Mattingly goes to sleep every night contented with the knowledge that because of Animorphs, his legacy will last into perpetuity.
Oh, yeah. David Mattingly is responsible for 50 of the 53 illustrations covering K.A. Applegate's bestselling Animorphs series.
Launched in the summer of 1996 and carrying on until 2001, the Animorphs franchise—which included a frankly ludicrous TV show on Nickelodeon starring the actor who would go on to play Iceman, and also that dude who would go on to be the dude from Royal Pains, and also (god help us all) a new film rumored to be in development—swiftly became a super-successful staple of 1990s pop culture (not to mention Scholastic book fairs) with its portrayal of five teens who'd been given powers by aliens. Specifically, the power to transform into any animal they touched to fight other aliens threatening to enslave the human race.
That the series attained such heights is thanks in part to its immediately recognizable covers, each of which featured a series of photos of a teen transforming into an animal. Though Mattingly wasn't the original Animorphs artist, his covers—starting with #4, The Message, and continuing through the final, 54th book and onto the auxiliary Megamorphs spinoffs (don't ask)—would end up constituting some of the first major computer-based "morphing" art. On top of that, his work ended up embodying the exact type of creatively adventurous and genuinely groundbreaking work that, impressive as it was in the 90s, looks hilariously, almost iconically insane today.
After the panel, camped out in a lounge area upstairs, Mattingly and I chatted about his claim to fame, as well as his bonus resumé items, his teaching career, and his uncommonly progressive views on the state of science fiction today.
VICE: How did you get into illustration?
David Mattingly: As a kid I was very influenced by comic books, and I originally thought I wanted to become a comic book artist, but I've never been terribly fast. I figured out that, as a cover artist, you're able to work longer. I think to make a living as a comic artist, at least in those days, you had to do at least a page a day, and that was still slow. [Famed comics artist Jack] Kirby could do three pages a day. With cover art, I could spend more time on the image, and I was always fascinated with it. Frank Frazetta was one of my idols, and [he was] doing covers. I always liked fantastic subject matter. I grew up in Colorado, and I didn't really have access to a lot of artists, but very early on I got interested in matte painting.
Can you explain matte painting in layman's terms?
It's a way of combining live action imagery with painted imagery. In the past it was done by painting on glass. For instance, in Gone With the Wind, in most shots where you see Tara [the plantation], they didn't have a complete Tara. They had the grounds for Tara, so you would paint the top of the house, and it would allow you to not have to build additional sets.
It was kind of a hidden art. For the most part, they didn't want people to know about it. Producers felt that people would feel the performance was fake if they knew about matte painting.
So you started as a matte painter?
I did. I [was going] to art school at Art Center College of Design [when] they ran this article on Harrison Ellenshaw in Starlog. Out of the blue, I just called him up at Disney Studios. I'd known his father's work; Peter Ellenshaw was the most famous matte artist of the 20th century. So I called up Disney Studios and said, "I loved your work on Mary Poppins," and he said, "Well, that was actually my father, but I did do Star Wars." Then he said, "You're an artist? Do you want to come in and interview? We're looking to staff up." I went in and interviewed with him, and then I quit school to take this job at Disney. My parents were horrified, but it turned out to be a fantastic gig, and he trained me really well.
What kind of work did you do there?
I worked for two years on The Black Hole; that was the major film I completed. I also worked on the first Tron film. In between I was doing cover art, which I've always been interested in. After a while I moved to New York, which wasn't a hub for matte painting at the time, so I would do commercials and whatever I could pick up in between cover art [gigs]. Then about 15 years ago, I started teaching. I'm now almost a full-time teacher, at the School of Visual Arts and Pratt Institute.
All right, let's talk Animorphs. Is it really true you did 50 of those covers?
There's probably 60 covers, because I did Megamorphs, and a couple student planners, a whole bunch of different things.
How did you get this gig?
It was a weird story: I had bought a computer in 1993, and I was one of the first illustrators to switch to the computer. [Scholastic art director Dave Tomasino] knew that. The first three Animorphs books were done by another artist, but Scholastic wasn't happy with that artwork. They knew that they wanted someone to do morphing, so Dave called me up and he said, "We heard that you knew how to do morphing." I'd actually never done any morphing at all, and I thought, "What the hell?"
What is "morphing," exactly?
The first morphing, I think, was in the second Terminator movie I remember it was one of the few instances where [I'd seen] something at the movies that [I'd] absolutely never seen before. Morphing is where you're taking two images, creating splines around different parts of the image, and then cross-dissolve them while distorting the images together. The magic is, these splines contain the shape, so that rather than just cross-dissolving between two objects, you're cross-dissolving between two objects where all of the shapes are constrained. It gives you very weird results.
But it's got a very distinctive look.
Yeah. I just had bought a copy of this very primitive morphing program, the only one available at the time called Elastic Reality. After getting the spec on the Animorphs books, I went home and just worked my ass off for the weekend, and came in with some samples. I said, "How about this?" and [they were] like, "Yeah, that's it!"
What did they not like about the first three? How was your work different?
For the first three, they hired a 3D artist. There's technically a way to morph between 3D objects, but it requires you to match the vertices between the two objects...this is probably more technical than you want to know.
The [first artist] actually didn't do a horrible job. [Scholastic] just didn't understand the limitations of what you could actually do in 3D. Morphing, on the other hand, is a strictly 2D process, but it could also produce problems with the image, so about 50 percent of my images were painted, so I could make up for all the shortcomings of the program.
Those Animorphs covers are so indicative of that era, of this proto-CGI 90s art, that they've now become part of this 90s nostalgia thing. Has doing those covers affected how people recognize you as an artist? What kind of effects does it have on your life?
When I drop the fact that I was the guy who did the Animorphs [art] to my students, a lot of times they don't believe it. [Back when I was doing the covers] I would go to parties and when I'd see a seven-year-old, I'd say,"I do the Animorphs books," and it was like, "Oh my God!"
How did your process work with the Animorphs covers? Did they give you the characters' photos first?
Oh, no. I did photo shoots [with the kids] myself, and then for the animals, I would either find a reference, or do a photoshoot when I actually could. For [The Stranger, book #7, the cover of which features the character Rachel morphing into a grizzly bear], I went out to a zoo and actually photographed a bear.
Did you use the same models over the years?
Unfortunately, I couldn't. The kids age too quickly. They come back in and they've gone through puberty and don't look the same at all. The only model that I was able to use for the entire series was the [model for the character Cassie]. If I saw her today, she'd probably look roughly the same—she just never aged, and was a fabulous model, very cooperative. In retrospect it would have been nice if I had just shot all of them at the beginning... Why didn't we just pay them to use their faces throughout?
Were you contracted to do a certain number, or was it on a cover-by-cover basis?
Actually, at first they were bi-monthly, and then at the end they were monthly. I was just pumping them out.
And K.A. Applegate was writing them at that pace too? That's an overwhelming schedule. And then she kept going with the Everworld books—
I did the Everworld books too.
Maybe the first five were done by another artist, but they were unhappy with them, so they said, "Let's get him to do it."
Did you ever have conversations with Applegate about the books?
I didn't talk to her, but she was very nice and sent me Christmas presents while I was doing them. They were red [Santa] hats, and boxes full of candy and stuff. I have a really soft spot in my heart for her.
It's always interesting to hear about the relationship between writers and the artists who illustrate their characters.
Actually, I'll give you some insight into that: In a lot of cases, the publishing companies don't want the illustrator to contact the author. Because, a lot of times, an author has a very distinct idea of what they want for the cover, and [as an artist], you can be put in a bind where you've developed a relationship with the author, and you like them, and then they [tell you], "I want this on the cover," but the publisher does not want that on the cover. I just don't want to be put in the middle.
Did you read the books when you were working on them?
I did not. I read them after the fact, when they became so hugely popular, because I just wanted to know about it. Scholastic just didn't feel like I needed to know all the details of the story. From an illustrator's perspective...if it's an 800-page book, it takes you a day or two to read the book, so it's easier when you [just work with] a cover spec. If I feel an investment in the author, I love to read the book if I have the opportunity, but the Animorphs books didn't work that way.
How has your job changed in terms of how much you can actually do in the book cover world? Has it diminished to a certain extent?
A friend of mine, Steve Youll, has found a little niche in doing covers for self-published books. I haven't done much of that.
Is there anything you don't do?
I've never been known as a "beautiful woman" artist—listen, if you can paint a beautiful, busty woman, you're going to stay employed for the rest of your life.
That seems crazy, when you think about how far the sci-fi genre has come.
Science fiction has definitely opened up much more. There's black writers, and black visions, and female protagonists, but 30 years ago science fiction was just largely white male-dominated stuff. This controversy that just happened with The Hugos where these guys—
The Sad Puppies, right? [Ed. Note: The Sad Puppies were a group of white men who believed the prestigious annual sci-fi awards had become "an affirmative action award" and formed a voting bloc to nominate more white dudes, many of whose work is openly racist, sexist, and homophobic. Read more at Motherboard.]
Yeah. It's like, come on, we live in an era where we're dealing with important issues of race rights and transsexual rights, and those are incredibly important issues. Of course those would be the books that would be honored!
On Motherboard: Weird Twitter Leaves Irony Behind on Instagram
It seems like you have a very optimistic view of your industry.
Part of the reason I love teaching is because I have contact with young people. I think, as you get older, if you don't present yourself with opportunities to have contact with young people, you'll want the old way, the way things were, to remain. I see so many kids with so many successful solutions. They are not my solutions, and I don't feel like I really need to hang on to those solutions. I thought some of them were great, and I'm happy I worked during that time, but there are lots... The whole thing about DeviantArt and how you can be discovered through these new mechanisms—20 years ago, they didn't exist at all.
Does it make you sad?
The state of art shows and conventions makes me sad because you can no longer see originals. There was so much emphasis on seeing artist originals. It was the way that I could learn about new artists that were up and coming that I really wanted to follow. Now everyone's working digitally. I still have all my old paintings at home, but they're a pain in the ass to haul around. This weekend, I brought my lenticular 3D paintings, which are a unique item. They can't be reproduced, so if you want to see them, a convention is the only place you can see them.
I appreciated what you were saying about your students. What do you see as how the state of your industry, I guess, the state of matte painting, the state of book cover illustration, what is it like? What does it look like if you're a young person who is getting out into those fields? What can they expect?
I think books will have much less of an impact on your generation than it had on my generation. I think that will increase. I think the number of people that will read books is going to go down, and that's sort of sad. But we live in a visually dazzling world, and if you see the new Michael Bay movie, are you then going to come home and read a print book? Even if it's on a Kindle, that's a pretty boring activity.
I think our brains are getting wired for more stimulus. The magic of reading a book, when your brain goes to that special place—it's going to get harder for young people to get into that place. Is that good or bad? I don't know.
Follow Devon Maloney on Twitter.