We have a lot to thank Thunderbirds for.
Innovative approaches to puppetry; great leaps in the televisual portrayal of sf hardware which appeared high-tech and futuristic the first time around (to my then-young eyes, at least) and in its current revival still delights with a kind of retro grown-ups-playing-with-toys spirit; a realisation that there are other ways to portray sf action stories on television ... all these aside, we should still thank Thunderbirds for kick-starting the career of Fred Gambino, one of the slickest sf artists of the last twenty years.
Gambino's model-making approach was both inspired by and honed through making models and drawings of Thunderbirds' equipment and vehicles as a schoolboy. Much of his earlier work was based on spaceships modelled from deodorant tubes, old bottles and other objects, before he moved on to pioneer the use of 3D computer-modelling instead. His fondness for the Thunderbirds approach still comes through in some of his descriptions of working methods in Ground Zero, and the fact that he stuck with physical modelling on occasion even after he had grown comfortable with computerised approaches.
This is, of course, a beautiful book, with production standards as high as one would expect from Paper Tiger. A large number of superbly reproduced illustrations, on high-quality paper, revealing in many cases details and subtleties that have never before appeared in print -- Gambino confesses to being obsessive about detail to the extent that his images tend to have far more content than most of his audience will ever see (this is one of many reasons why it is well worth seeking out his work in exhibitions: his display at the 2001 UK national sf convention, for example, was one of the highlights of the art room).
He is an artist of vivid colour and fantastically dramatic perspectives -- none of your full-on spaceships for Gambino: he shows hardware from unpredictable angles, often cutting off parts of a spaceship, the emphasis always on a vehicle's place in the landscape (or planetscape, or starscape...). In one of the short (too short!) accompanying essays, Jim Burns sums up Gambino's work beautifully: "...in a cynical time when the future is often depicted as a choice of grim, gritty dystopias of one variety or another, it's encouraging to come upon Fred's shiny, colour-saturated alternatives." Gambino's future is so bright, you really do need shades, so dramatic that you're there.
The double-spread of Heaven's Reach is, quite simply, awesome: bold colours, dramatic movement, a startling backdrop of fiery clouds. The series of covers for the Foundation series for two different publishers includes some superb cityscapes, particularly that for David Brin's Foundation's Triumph. Gambino makes the point that the city in these books is on so vast a scale as to be almost inconceivable to the onlooker: buildings as big as countries appearing as only a fraction of the whole. And yet, while this point is worth making it's almost redundant, as Gambino's images already convey that sense of vastness.
Naturally enough, for an artist at the forefront of the exploitation of computer techniques, Gambino's work sometimes shows some of the medium's weaknesses as well as its great strengths. Techniques that seemed cutting-edge at the time, such as an over-use of Bryce-generated landscapes, can look clichéd now simply because so many others have subsequently followed where Gambino led. He is refreshingly up-front about this in his accompanying notes.
Perhaps a greater danger of computer techniques is that when it doesn't work things can jar. Where photographic reference material is worked into the image, there's often a disjoint between elements that look as if they could have been airbrushed and those that are clearly photographic in origin. Occasionally, these disjoints are too evident in Gambino's work. In Second Contact, for instance, there are features which in themselves are superb -- a lizard-like alien, some fine flying vehicles -- but which just don't fit together as a whole. There appears to be at least two conflicting points of focus here: a blurred photographic backdrop; in the mid-distance the beautifully-detailed, pin-sharp, flying vehicles; closer, a blurred fireball; and in the foreground, the (pin-sharp again) alien. A low point, from an artist capable of great highs.
The text in this book is provided by Dick Jude, Elizabeth Moon, David Brin, Robert Sawyer, Jim Burns, Chris Moore and Gambino himself. That's an impressive cast list, but each of the essays is short: a few soundbites where more depth from fewer contributors would have been appreciated. Perhaps the most telling contribution comes from Sawyer when he says of two Gambino covers that they are clearly the best out of many editions worldwide -- so much so that the original of The Terminal Experiment hangs in Sawyer's living room. So many authors complain about the diabolical wrongness of their covers; so many more complain that, while the art may be very good, it's just not right. Sawyer's words are praise indeed.
The many images in Ground Zero are each accompanied by a paragraph or two by Gambino himself, and it is in the cumulative effect of these that most insight into the man and his work is achieved. He is, by turns, informative about both technique and an illustrator's life ("that age-old art director's cry, 'do something the same, but different'") and engagingly self-deprecating ("I built the model from an old truck tyre inner tube and used a football for the central globe. I actually went to all the trouble of painting this, making small plasticine buildings and even using pipe cleaners for the tree. I do look back and wonder sometimes.").
We do, as I say, have an awful lot to thank Thunderbirds for.
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© Nick Gifford 27 October 2001