Goals are dreams with a deadline...”—Tony Robbins
This one’s personal…
Like a lot of kids, growing up I was always captivated and mesmerized by comic books and superheroes—in particular Marvel comics. I grew up Brooklyn NY, during the 70s and 80s, the so-called Bronze Age of comic books. Some of my earliest and fondest memories were watching The Incredible Hulk tv show starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno every Friday night on CBS. I would get both excited and terrified over the course of each episode, immersed in the mounting tension building toward each episode’s two explosive Hulk-outs, and the ensuing release of rage and power. (I’ll save my love and fanaticism over that show for another post..)
The rest of my escapism, though, found its outlet within the pages and panels of Marvel comics.
(above: When I was about 7 or 8, I sent a drawing of a superhero I invented called “The Masked Strength” to Stan Lee at Marvel Comics hoping he would add it to the Marvel Universe. This was the letter I got back.)
Every month from the ages of 8-12, my father would take me and a neighborhood buddy to a local comic shop called ‘The Comic Book Scene’ on Coney Island Avenue, near Kings Highway in Brooklyn. These visits were among the highlights of my youth, as I would eagerly look forward to the new releases of my favorite titles (The Incredible Hulk (of course), Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, The Avengers, and whatever the epic mini series/limited series event of the moment was i.e. Contest of Champions, Secret Wars I & II and my all time favorite, The Marvel Universe). On rare occasions, we would take the journey to The Forbidden Planet in Manhattan on Broadway and 12th street, which was the equivalent to my local comic store on a lot of steroids. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wl3SI4IHnFg)
The basement there was nothing short of a comic book wonderland, filled with vast treasure troves of back issues and all the new releases on endless rows of racks. Surrounding all of this were rare superhero toys, and die cast transforming robots imported from Japan. It was a scavenger hunt, to enter the confines of these comic wonderlands, and dig through dusty boxes of back issues to finally find the one issue of a title that would complete a span of my collection. These visits were a pilgrimage for me.
I remember throughout the 80s, there were always rumors and talk of Marvel finally making a feature film. Stan Lee’s monthly mailbag columns would discuss recent efforts to bring Captain America and Fantastic Four to the silver screen. Fanboys like me, would always daydream fantasy castings of what specific actors would be perfect for which Marvel characters. But alas, we never got a (real, big budget, wide release) feature film in those days, and had to take a back seat to watching the campy Batman and Superman sequels, with sorrow and disappointment that our Universe wasn’t getting its fair share. I clearly remember thinking to myself, if they ever made Marvel movies that did the characters and storylines justice, the sky’s the limit!!
My comic books were my most prized possession as a kid. I took such tremendous pride and pleasure in these works of art, carefully bagging each issue and backing them with card board. I would hang some of my favorites on the wood paneled walls around my room. Trying to mimic the decor of these comic stores I loved so much, I wanted to imagine that my bedroom was a comic book store. I wanted to wake up each morning and see the covers of some of my favorite issues staring back at me, and inspiring my imagination.
ABOVE: This is from a decaying home video tape I recently discovered I took panning around my room as a kid in 1983 playing with a video camera that was bigger then me. This was the best freeze frame I could capture. Titles shown: The Incredible Hulk, Conan, Ms. Marvel, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Marvel Universe vol. “A”, and Jack of Hearts)
I grew up in a very artistic family. My parents met at the art school Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in the 60s. My mother was an interior designer and my father was an accomplished painter and illustrator, who taught high school art in a Brooklyn high school for 40+ years. He’d paint and draw with me from the time I was old enough to hold a pencil and paintbrush. I would often tag along to Saturday morning art workshops he held at the School of Visual Arts throughout the early 80s. If I wasn’t learning various perspective techniques in his class, I would frequently sneak into a next door classroom being held in cel animation, and there got my first taste of cartooning and filmmaking. I began a vast series of hand drawn cartoons—each a pile of 400+ pages of colored pencil renderings I drew one by one on a light-box. These phonebook sized stacks still survive and live in my attic to this day. Little did I know how much these early experiences would influence my future path…
One of the most appealing aspects to me about Marvel comics was the raw artistry and visual dynamism of the “Marvel Way.” I loved how each comic panel were rendered as if they were freeze frames right out of an action movie. The saying a picture is worth a thousand words was never more true then in a Marvel Comics panel, as entire stories could be told with one incredible, multi layered image, often showing multiple steps of a character’s action (or transformation, in the Hulk’s case). Marvel set the bar in illustrating characters in the most dynamic, exaggerated perspective and poses possible—the heroes literally sprung to life off the page, no 3d glasses required. Forget all the Da Vinci rules of human anatomical proportion and measurement—Marvel showed how you can extend limbs, fingers, shrink heads, inflate muscles and still create images that still looked real, heroic, aspirational and even physically possible.
Comics could indeed be appreciated on a multitude of levels, from the purely visual to the often profound and complex storylines told through voice balloons and narration panels. And what stories they were! Stories of wonder, stories to stir the imagination, stories that asked what if? Stories that opened the mind to worlds beyond our own and other universes and dimensions that housed beings whose power went “beyond human comprehension.” These stories were grounded in real world trials and tribulations of unlikely heroes, cursed heroes, heroes that didn’t want the responsibility—and that’s one of the many reasons these characters were so relatable.
Marvel has been creating such a rich and deep universe for decades; the recent film universe is just getting warmed up. The Cinematic Universe’s success is partially due to the genius of these characters and storylines conceived years ago and marrying that with a simply brilliant executive team whose leadership and filmmaking skills can finally bring these stories to life in all their glory as they were intended to be. The complexity of the Marvel Universe goes well beyond just creating new superheroes with unique powers; it’s built on universal laws and scientific principles that tie everything together and governs these mythologies. The Marvel Universe series of comics were amongst my all time favorites for codifying and creating the ultimate reference for fanboys like me. They rewrote the laws of physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry, in a highly believable and fully thought out way to make these heroes and villains highly plausible to the point where kids like me were alway on the lookout for radioactive spiders and gamma bombs, what if…
Growing up as the “class artist” at school, I was always encouraged to become an architect. After all, I was told, if you’re can draw and want to actually make a living, that was your only option. So off to college I went to study Architecture at Carnegie Mellon but quickly decided that Graphic Design was my true calling. In my senior year, a professor and mentor opened my eyes to the world of Film Title designs. This was an area of filmmaking and graphic design I was completely unfamiliar with, and in the early 90s was never even a part of the conversation. This professor had a personal stash of vhs tapes of notable film title sequences he had been assembling for quite a while. He showed me Stephen Frankfurt’s To Kill a Mockingbird; he showed me a wide selection of classic James Bond titles by Maurice Binder, and then he got to Saul Bass. He had virtually all of the quintessential Bass title sequences cut together (we watched them over and over again throughout that entire semester.) Finally he got to R/Greenberg Associates. Here was a company back home in NYC thats one of the only studios doing major title sequences! From Superman to Aliens to The Untouchables, they did almost every film title sequence from the late 70s through the 80s. The seed was planted, and a goal was set—here was a focus that married my loves of film, graphic design and animation. When I graduated, I knew I wanted to design title sequences for films. (And this happened long before that was ‘a thing…’ )
Fast forward, after Saul Bass kindly rejected me, I did indeed begin work at R/Greenberg Associates (another story for another day, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XC-d3nroHlc).
After spending over 5 years designing countless graphics and animations for television commercials and branding campaigns, and a couple of film title sequences sprinkled in, I moved on to start my own studio Perception with another R/GA colleague Danny Gonzalez. We founded the company in 2001, and right from the beginning one of my biggest goals was to once again focus on title sequences for feature films. Recall back in 2000, X-Men first came out and in 2002, Sam Raimi’s brilliant Spider-Man had just been released. Finally the starving Marvel fan boys like me, got the Marvel movies that did justice to the source material. I remember the founding of Perception coincided with the news that Ang Lee was in production on a Hulk movie (my favorite character). My goal of designing title sequences for feature films, just got a lot sharper and crisper—we needed to be the company that designed title sequences for Marvel films.
“If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know when you’ll get there…”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
I’ve always been big on setting bold goals, making lists and giving myself deadlines to accomplish them. Jim Collins calls them BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals in his classic book Built to Last). Research shows that setting a specific goal makes it more likely to be achieved and will build more momentum towards that result. I always looked at goals as a destination, and if you begin with the end in mind, you can plot the best path to get you there. Over the next 8 years, I was relentless in my pursuit of achieving my goal.
As if there was some secret formula and recipe, one of the most frequent questions I am always asked is: ‘how did you guys start working with Marvel??’ I’m certainly not going to divulge every step of the journey—every meeting, presentation, conversation, rejection, trials, failures, celebration, and achievement—along the way…but of course, there is no secret. It comes down to pure perseverance, determination, tenacity, resourcefulness, courage and sheer love and passion for the Marvel brand. Of course, having a team of artists, designers and thinkers at Perception that are the best in the world at what we do helps a lot, too.
Having a powerful enough why will provide you with the necessary how.
From an entire youth spent escaping in the pages of Marvel comics, the passion and excitement to reach the goal had been building my whole life. That is my superpower—unstoppable tenacity and perseverance in pursuing a goal and making it reality.
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take ”—Wayne Gretzky
The journey that began in 2001 with Perception’s incorporation, took 9 years to hit its first major Marvel milestone. In 2010 Iron Man 2 was released with over 100 shots of Perception designed Stark interfaces, screens and devices. 5 years later—a full 14 years into Perception’s existence—we did it—we designed a title sequence for Marvel Studios, The Avengers: Age of Ultron—the biggest Marvel film up to that date. And in 2016, we redesigned the logo and animation for the Marvel Studios brand to be shown in front of all Marvel Studios films for years to come, beginning with Doctor Strange (another of my all time favorite characters from youth). So full circle now, from a 10 year old kid in a Brooklyn comic shop whose imagination was unleashed through the pages of everything Marvel, to 30 years later, leading the team with the distinct honor and privilege of designing the new brand identity of Marvel Studios. I truly can’t put into words how meaningful and grateful I am, and it all goes back to dreaming big and to the strength of setting powerful and big goals.
A very personal thank you to Stan Lee, Kevin Feige, Victoria Alonso, Louis D’Esposito, Jeremy Latcham, Danielle Costa, and all the incredible filmmakers, producers, VFX supervisors we’ve been honored to collaborate with so closely over the years!
A very special thanks to Ken West, Professor Roy McKelvey, Bob Greenberg and Kenneth Johnson.
POSTSCRIPT: Since the publishing of this blog, Perception has designed over 10 more groundbreaking and epic title sequences for Marvel Studios—Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor Ragnarok, Black Panther, Spider-man Far From Home, Infinity War (opening title), Endgame, WandaVision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, What If, Black Widow, Shang Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, and several other upcoming shows and films soon to be released.