Suspended Animation #368
Artist Mike Ploog was born in Mankato, Minnesota on July 13, 1940. He grew up on a Minnesota farm and when his father and mother divorced, he moved to Burbank, California. At age seventeen he enlisted in the Marine Corps and served for ten years. During his final years in the service, he was doing writing, photography and art for Leatherneck magazine.
Today, he is best known for his comic book work for Marvel comics including Man-Thing, Werewolf by Night, Ghost Rider and others as well as his design and storyboarding for live action films like John Carpenter’s The Thing, Richard Lester’s Superman II, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal among several others.
However, rarely explored is his frequent flirtation with some significant animation projects. When he left the service, an old friend of his named Duane Wells from Leatherneck magazine suggested he try working at the Filmation animation studio where he might be able to make a living doing artwork.
In 1969, Ploog spent a week putting together a portfolio of his artwork. When he showed it to Don Christensen, he was hired immediately to do cleanup work on other people’s drawings.
Christensen told Ploog that they wanted him to do other things but that first he would have to learn how to do them since he knew nothing about animation. Christensen even stayed late with Ploog to teach him how to do layouts which Ploog was eager to learn since it meant more money.
Ploog was assigned to The Batman/Superman Hour, one of the few times he ever worked on superheroes. He was offered more money at Hanna-Barbera and left to do layouts on Wacky Races and Motormouse and Autocat (1969), a segment of the Cattanooga Cats series.
Ploog recalled, “I worked on goofy cars and goofy airplanes and things like that, anything that could carry Autocat and Motormouse around. Towards the end, they were having me do more detailed drawings for some of the designs on the cars and things. But talk about boring!
“I also got to work on the Scooby-Doo pilot. Nothing spectacular though. It was a salary, y’know? It was a way of making a living without sitting on a tractor. I had very few aspirations, because I didn’t know where anything I was doing was going to take me.”
While working at H-B, a co-worker showed him a flyer from cartoonist Will Eisner who was looking for an artist with military experience who could draw in his style to assist on PS magazine so Ploog was hired and left animation. After a few years, at the suggestion of Eisner’s letterer Ben Oda, Ploog got work at Warren magazines and later Marvel.
Animation producer and director Ralph Bakshi had been a fan of Ploog’s work on Marvel comics especially the Weird World story about two elves in a dimension very much like Middle Earth that first appeared in 1976.
He phoned Ploog and told him he was in pre-production on The Lord of the Rings and Ploog was desperately needed. When Ploog showed up, he found nothing had been done on the project yet but Bakshi wanted his help on another project that was in production.
Ploog remembered for the Modern Masters book, “It was a kind of trick just to get me over there to get me to work on Wizards (1977). I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing. He called them ‘history drawings’ or something like that. They would have a voice-over and then they just plugged the still drawings in. It was to fill in the story gaps he’d skipped over while doing the animation. I enjoyed the film but it was very strange.
“Then I was involved with meetings for LOTR and I did some background drawings. I did an awful lot of different things on LOTR. I did character designs. I did a lot of backgrounds. I did storyboards. I even played the part of Gimli in several sequences. And I was a ringwraith on horseback which was great fun. It was a lot of fun because I was involved in a lot of different parts of the production.
“Actually, Tim Burton worked on the film as a rotoscope animator. He sat kitty-corner across from me. He drove me nuts because I was doing the backgrounds and he was doing the rotoscope and horses’ hooves weren’t matching to the backgrounds. They were using an old Eisenstein film to rotoscope and the camera was moving so obviously the horses’ hooves were always going to be at different levels. He drove me nuts until they finally moved his desk.”
Ploog also ended up doing some bits and pieces on Hey, Good Lookin’ (1982 but work was done on it in the late 1970s). After Ploog left Bakshi, “I was doing spot things for commercials and stuff. I had an office with a couple of friends of mine. They had a place called Animation Camera. And I worked for a guy named Dick Brown. He had the rights to do Flipper. He also had the entire library of Republic Studios shorts. We were trying to make animation out of some of those. That’s when I was approached by the guys to work on Heavy Metal (1981).”
It was intended that Ploog would direct the B-17 sequence. He tightened up the storyboards and did research but because of the need to meet certain requirements to maintain the financing of the Canadian Film Board to have a certain number of Canadians participate, the segment was given to a Canadian director.
Ploog also did work on the Taarna segment where he designed a lot of the secondary characters and did storyboards on it.
Ploog went on to spend a year and a half working on Disney’s The Black Cauldron (1985). Ploog said, “Just working with the guys over there was great. Such talent. Unbelievable.”
However, Ploog felt that because there were two different directors who didn’t seem to communicate with each other and each had his own storyboard crew, that it seemed like two different movies. Ploog worked on the witches, the King and the skeletons. \]
Then he moved over to Dreamworks where he worked on Prince of Egypt (1998) and Shrek (2001). Ploog worked on character designs of the characters of Shrek and the donkey.
Ploog said, “I thought Shrek was a brilliant idea from the very get go. I worked on it for like two years. It went through different stages. At first, I was just working on design and concept. Then I was working on story and in story development. The first scripts were very good. They were very funny.
“Shrek was great. He was a bit more klutzy in the beginning than he turned out to be. I don’t know how many scripts, and how many script writers and how many directors and how many producers were on that thing. One day, I walked into the new producer’s office as said, ‘I’ve given you guys two years of my life. It’s all I’ve got in me.’ So they allowed me to leave.”
Ploog also worked on Valiant (2005) about carrier pigeons in World War II. Ploog stated, “If they hadn’t messed with the budget that could have been a knockout movie. On Valiant, if they just would have had more of the war going on in the background, you would have felt the danger these pigeons were in. You could have felt the frightening atmosphere that they were working in. Because of budget, they pulled that out.”
In addition, he worked layout for the animated feature Metamorphoses (1978) because he had previously worked with the writer-director Takashi at Filmation, storyboarded for Titan A.E. and layout for one episode of The Tick animated series (1994) and several episodes of Godzilla (1978-79).
“Animation has changed a great deal because of CG. But what I do hasn’t changed all that much. Good animation still works, even if it is CG.”