A CANDID INTERVIEW WITH MENTOR HUEBNER
Huebner became Flash’s permanent production illustrator
soon after shaking the South Seas sand of DeLaurentiis’
Hurricane from his hair. Traveling the globe in the course of
his profession, Huebner works wherever film producers need him,
taking advantage of the opportunity to soak up historic atmosphere
on long, weekend walks.
several months in London for Flash, Huebner was the only English-speaking
member of the Italian art department.
interviewed, he was working in a North Hollywood office, planning
the upcoming DeLaurentiis version of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Personable, candid and willing to share the memories of more than
a hundred feature films since he entered the business in 1952,
Huebner was, relaxed in a room surrounded by his charcoal and
crayon drawings for Meteor, King Kong and other big-budget blockbusters.
revealed he had originally visualized the staging of classic scenes
such as the chariot race from Ben-Hur and the biplane chase through
the cornfields in North by Northwest. He was also the designer
of George Pal’s memorable - Time Machine.
wasn’t one of the best of my ideas, but George was quite
taken with that whirling disk I put on the back.”
the last thirty years, Huebner has served as production designer,
illustrator or art director on such movies as The Longest Day,
Fiddler on the Roof, The Amityville Horror, 10, Lord of the Rings,
Forbidden Planet, Westworld, The Great Race, Damnation Alley and
the upcoming Under the Rainbow and S.O.B.
has also exercised his penchant for historical settings by designing
all the necessary atmosphere for the TV productions of The Man
in the Iron Mask, The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Miserables.
artist who genuinely loves to draw, Huebner creates countless
storyboards every year. He taught life-drawing classes at a California
university for 20 years, and has had numerous gallery showings
of his paintings. More than a simple draftsman, Mentor finds that
the skills required to be a first-rate production illustrator
include being a functional designer with a thoroughly detailed
knowledge of set construction, special effects, screen composition,
lighting, storytelling, costume designing, editing, cameras, lenses,
and space-time coordination.
production illustrator,” he explains, ”is the guy
who gets the script, reads, ’500 Indians sprang out of the
bushes,’ and has to solve the problems of putting those
Indians realistically on the screen. Where do they come from?
How did they get there? Are they on horses? Where are the horses?
Where have they been hiding? These are the questions the writer
didn’t resolve when he typed the scene.
illustrators are real money-savers for producers. Some new directors
and executives don’t understand how to use our skills effectively,
and try to ramrod through situations without storyboards. But,
on a really elaborate film, with multiple camera setups, stars
and extras, 500 Indians and their horses could cost up to $150,000
a day. Every minute is precious. There's no time for improvising
or debating with the cameraman about the field of vision. Three
bad days on a big film could equal my income for nearly three
years. It also makes financial sense to lay everything out, shooting
as tightly and economically as possible, instead of guessing and
leaving over a half-million bucks on the editing room floor.
directors, like Blake Edwards, use boards and collaborate freely,
usually for the chases and tricky technical problems. Two-people-in-a-room
scenes rely mostly upon the actors, but fifty people in a room
have to be choreographed for the camera so that the audience won’t
see the dolly tracks, crane shadows, or reflector lighting panels.
But then, there are the directors who are resentful of anyone
planning their shots; it infringes on their creativity.
Gordon was a great film experience. Working with Mike Hodges was
a real pleasure, because he’s the most sensitive person
I’ve dealt with in a long time, a marvelous raconteur –
I think he’s really a frustrated actor at heart. He lent
a sympathetic ear when I’d say, ’ Mike, this scene
just won’t play.’ We’d sit down and work out
concepts together, rewriting the script at my drawing board.
done about 2000 storyboards for Flash over the past two-and-a-half
years, along with a number of 20 x 40” detailed set studies
for the construction department. The script was rewritten four
or five times along the way. Much of the drawing was very detailed
because Dino wanted the technicians to see everybody and everything
in every panel.
you have over $25 million invested you want to know what’s
happening to all of it. We were on six stages at Shepperton, all
the Star Wars facilities at EMI, and in a six-million-cubic-foot
complex at Brooklands. I had to do a lot of drawing to fill all
addition to positioning all the people on the ground, Huebner
also had to solve a number of aerial difficulties when it came
to the scenes involving King Vultan and the Hawkmen of Mongo.
He not only designed the wing-like jet packs which replaced the
ponderous previous versions, but also had to determine the cameraman's
angles so that the Hawkmen, kept fourteen feet apart by their
wings, would appear to be only three feet apart – conversational
distance – when delivering dialog.
a spectacular flying sequence, Huebner devised a way to simulate
an entire squadron of flying men with eight actors, thirty miniatures
and triple optical printing – completed in post-production
by the special effects crew under Frank (Superman) Van der Veer’s
supervision. The man who actually constructed the Hawkmen’s
wings, Glenn Robinson, performed a similar task 40 years ago for
The Wizard of Oz’s flying monkeys.
essential plot for the DeLaurentiis Flash Gordon is rather like
the original comic strip – Flash, Dale and Dr. Zarkov fly
to Mongo to avert an interplanetary collision. Princess Aura,
King Barin and other familiar characters turn up during the struggle
to overcome the tyranny of Ming the Merciless.
Earth settings have been updated by screenwriter Lorenzo Semple
Jr., who reportedly received $225,000 for the finished script.
”But,” interjects Huebner, ”even the most talented
writers forget simple time and space problems when they are concentrating
on the dramatic instead of the visual end of the story.
one point, we used a 175-foot-long set with Ming’s throne
constructed at one end: Flash was to crash his rocket at the opposite
end, go through a corridor, and up the stairs to the throne. I
got the screenplay and found the landing scene described only
as ’Flash Gordon staggers out of his crashed rocket and
says to Ming – “Oh, yeah?”
two actors ar e 175 feet apart! I had to block out a series of
shots with various angles and quick takes to signify a short passage
of time, just to bring Ming and Flash together. It was nothing
sensational, just necessary for the story flow.”
his storyboards resemble elaborate comic book panels, and function
in much the same way, Huebner’s attention to detail and
practicality goes far beyond the four-color realm, even on such
a comics-inspired project as Flash Gordon .
remember the original Alex Raymond strips quite well, and we had
the reprinted books in my office, Mike’s and Dino’s.
We used what we could, but some designs were too impractical to
build, so we adapted the material, and retained the artistic flavor.
like working with Dino, even though he can be very demanding.
He treats me with consideration. He’ll call me and say,
’Hey, Mentor. I want you to go to England tomorrow morning,
work maybe five, six weeks.’ Then, he will see to it I’m
put up in a nice hotel and be well taken care of. He’s not
like a lot of producers who won’t even let you go to the
library for research – they figure you have been hired to
draw, so they damn near chain you to the board, and wont spring
for bus fare to Burbank.”
of his drawings are ever returned to Huebner, not even those done
for films which were never made. ”They’re stolen,”
he explains. ”People take them for souvenirs. I try to get
as many as I can myself, because they’re valuable to me
as a guide to what I’ve already done. The rest wind up on
producers’ walls, some studio files and in film archives.
an artist, I appreciate audience reaction to my work, even if
nobody knows that the scenes they're watching developed partially
through my efforts. But the projects that are most frustrating
will always be the ones that never quite got off the ground, like
the handful I designed with George Pal, including for the film,
Iceberg, which he was working on when he died.
like production illustration because it presents me with challenging
situations which require my particular ability to both draw and
work out the mechanics of getting a good shot or pacing a difficult
scene. Often, just the quality of my work is satisfying, particularly
if I am able to create a cohesive overall atmosphere for a film.
Sometimes, I’ll see the movie in a theater just to find
out if it works with the audience.
an illustrative sense, I am directing movies on paper. I’ve
even toyed with the idea of becoming a Director, but I’m
not sure I could handle the actors well. I’m too used to
nailing them down on my drawing hoard – I don’t know
if I’d like to start watching them move around all by themselves.”
storyboards reproduced in this special PREVUE portfolio are from
Huebner’s personal files and present prime examples of his
work on Flash. Note the skilled familiarity with which he draws
the human figure reflecting his many years of study. Many production
artists have an awkward, architectural approach towards drawing
people, as opposed to Mentor’s easy facility, solid mastery
of forms and appealing warmth and humanity.
Huebner’s skill with cinematic imagery and the sequential
staging of action, supplemented by directional arrows to indicate
camera motion and character movement. By constantly altering sizes
of elements, points of view and angles of vision, he introduces
stimulating visual variations which engage viewer interest. By
focusing on even the unimportant details and rendering every figure
in the crowd scenes, Mentor conveys an accurate impression of
exactly what figures, textures and emotional impressions the camera
should see. *
sequence * is from one of the earlier
drafts of the screenplay,” Huebner explains, “and
has been altered somewhat for the final version. The soldier who
throws himself on the sword was changed into a Lionman and put
into an arena with a monster, I believe, to tie into the original
Flash Gordon material.
was the way I originally staged the initial face-off between Flash
and Ming, just after their landing on Mongo, juggling over a half-dozen
major characters, and trying to show what types of personalities
they have through the pictures alone. As you can see, Flash doesn't
fare to well in this sequence.
then, this is Flash Gordon we're dealing with, and the movie has
only just begun.”