Greg Hildebrandt is a true illustration legend whose work has been widely seen on everything from movie posters, book covers, album covers, trading cards, calendars, and comic books. Greg and his late brother Tim made up the iconic illustration duo The Brothers Hildebrandt. You would instantly recognize their famous artwork for Star Wars and The Lord of The Rings. Greg was kind enough to sit down with me for an in depth conversation about the amazing artwork he created with his brother Tim as well as the beautiful work he's done on his own over the years. He also shared some unique personal stories from his incredible life as an artist. In part two of my interview with Greg Hildebrandt we discuss going to art school with his brother Tim, their experience making films for Bishop Fulton Sheen, creating the movie poster for Clash of the Titans, working for Marvel Comics, his recent Pin Up art, creating artwork for famous rock bands like Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Black Sabbath, and the day he spent with two legends, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando.
Did you and your brother Tim go to art school together?
Tim and I went to the Meinzinger Art School in Detroit and took their basic 6 month course. We had professors in little bow ties and pin striped suits. It was great, a fantastic school. We learned perspective, anatomy, life drawing, color and design. Bill Meinzinger, who was the son of the founder of the school in his color and design class gave us a lesson that basically formed the basis for our use of light and color. He said that if there's a warm light on a subject there is a cool shadow. And if there's a cool light on a subject there's a warm shadow. That way you just don't add black when something is dark. That helped set a foundation for everything we did later.
After the 6 month course, we started–at 18 years old–to work at the Jam Handy Organization in Detroit. They were an industrial film producer. We worked as assistants in the animation department with animators from Disney and the Max Fleischer Studio. It was incredible! We started opaquing cells, then moved up to production design, storyboarding, background painting, and finally, animation–including stop motion and cell animation.
One of the other things that was very influential to me was the Diego Rivera mural in the entrance hall in the Detroit Institute of Arts. While I lived in Detroit I had to go there at least once a month to see it. I had no idea at all of the political controversy it stirred up in the city, and I didn’t care. I was just totally crazy over Diego’s art.
How did you and Tim end up moving and working in New York?
It's kind of a bizarre story. Bishop Fulton Sheen, who used to be a catholic Bishop on television, was huge in the 1950's. There were three networks and Milton Berle was on one, Frank Sinatra was on the other, and Bishop Sheen was on the other. He was a great guy, he really was. He was a great speaker and very literary. Through odd circumstances we were connected to his office and he found out we were artists and filmmakers and he was interested in hiring us to make films on world hunger. One of his main obsessions was making Americans aware of the Third World. He was kind of like our current pope, Pope Francis, in terms of his social equality stand. So, we came to NY to work for him. I was a very naive kid plopped in the middle of New York City. Detroit is a small town compared to New York. We were making films with the World Health Organization and UNICEF. It's the 1960's and the whole transformation is occurring and I start to become a part of all that. We made one film with Bishop Sheen that was a contrast movie of the haves and have nots. We made a film attacking the rich church. Needless to say he wasn't popular with the clerical establishment. By 1967 all this shit is going down in this country and he gets kicked out of his office. I really admire him, I'm not involved in religion anymore, but him I hold in high esteem.
Was that experience what inspired your painting that was used for the Black Sabbath album cover for Mob Rules?
Yeah, coming out of that turmoil that I had and breaking away from everything I was raised with I had all this angst. I had angst with the group that took over after Bishop Sheen and I was having these dreams. One of them had this imagery of these racks with stretched bloody skin on them and these hulking guys with bullwhips. I had a clear memory of my dream when I painted that. That piece ended up in a book that Ballantine put out of Tim and me. Black Sabbaths manager saw it, and the guys in the band saw it, and they wanted to use it as their album cover for Mob Rules. This was in 1980 or 81. Jean Scrocco had been working as my manager for about a year. Black Sabbath called her and she told me they wanted use my painting as their album cover. I said no! It's too personal! So what did she do? She told them yes! That was a smart move and I'm glad she did.
What was your experience working with your brother Tim on the movie poster for Clash of the Titans?
Tim and I did about 50 different layouts for Clash of the Titans. We were big Ray Harryhausen fans, we loved Ray Harryhausen. So we did 50 layouts and they ended up saying no, we want it to look like your Star Wars poster. They wanted a big head in the sky and the two figures underneath. That's what they wanted. That's what the studio said, to imitate the Star Wars poster. Our other layouts were much better. They were more original.
How did you end up doing so much artwork for Marvel and what was your favorite character to work on?
In the 90's I told Jean I would like to do comics and I started working for Marvel. For me, I like working on the old characters like Captain America. He is my favorite. Because Captain America goes back to the 40's, which goes back to my childhood. He was the first superhero I was aware of. Marvel rolled out the red carpet for us. They were really great to work with. The first job they gave Tim and I was the Marvel Masterpiece Card Series. It was 160 paintings. They gave us 6 months to do 160 paintings. And we did.
Is it true that you once spent the day with Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando looking at your paintings?
I knew Michael Jackson because he was a fan of my art. He was a fantastic guy, extremely bright, and hyper enthusiastic. He invited me to Neverland Ranch. He was talking to me about designing a painting for him and we were working on all kinds of stuff. Then when it was time for me to leave the next day Michael said. "You can't leave. Marlon Brando is coming tomorrow!” I'm like, Oh Wow and I feel like a fish out of water. I'm not used to this world. I'm staying in a guest room at Neverland and I'm getting nervous as hell because Brando is coming tomorrow. The next day I'm looking out the window and this beat up Volkswagen comes puttering in and it's Marlon Brando! Michael had Jean send about 200 of my paintings to the Ranch for viewing and they were set up in his giant playroom. Michael says “Let’s hear it for Greg Hildebrandt,” because he knew I was nervous. Michael was thin and in all black, wearing a fedora, and Brando was quite heavy at the time, wearing grey sweats and a big floppy hat. Michael introduces me to Brando and they start looking at my paintings. Talk about being nervous. They were staring at my paintings for an hour. Marlon turns to me and says, “You certainly have the ability to see things through the eyes of a child". And Michael all excited says, “Marlon never says anything positive about anything!” After we finish looking at the paintings Brando says to himself, "It's a whole other life, it’s a whole other life.” I had no idea what was in his head. Put yourself in my shoes between Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando looking at your work. I'll never forget how the day ended, Michael Jackson had squirt guns all over and he picks one up and squirts me, then Brando picks one up, and we had a squirt gun fight!
How did you get started doing Pin Up art?
I've always wanted to do pin ups. I told Jean I wanted to do pin ups and when I showed her my first pin up painting she flipped over it. She contacted Lou Meisel in Manhattan, creator of The Great American Pinup book. Jean told him she represented me, and he said, "I know who Greg is, he paints Hobbits". Jean told him that I also do Pin Up art. She sends him my first painting. He loves it, so we meet. We decide to do a show that December. Lou wants 25 paintings, so I did 25 paintings in 10 months.
Your Pin Up art is really beautifully done. I would imagine you grew up on the American tradition of Pin Up art, but I also wonder if some younger audiences may not get that and see it as objectifying women.
Yeah, I grew up in the 40's. I grew up on the Pin Up art of guys like Gil Elvgren and Alberto Vargas. People can criticize it and call it objectifying women, but that's making politics out of it. What do they mean objectifying women? I love women, I love beauty, and I love telling a story. Most of the women in my pin ups are strong and in control of the situation. I view these paintings more like satire. It doesn’t demean the women. It exemplifies their power. To me, I will paint anything. It's no different than painting anything else. And thanks to Jean a lot of people are seeing it and they like it. I’ve painted over 100 pin ups since 1999 of all sorts of women. They are popular with men and women. Some of them are even commissions. So, no, I am not objectifying women.
You have done a lot of artwork for the rock band Trans-Siberian Orchestra over the years. How did that come about?
The first time I heard a CD from Trans-Siberian Orchestra it just grabbed me. Their music completely took me over. For months I was playing their music and sketching to it. I called Paul O'Neill the producer and composer and left a message. The next day my phone rings and its Paul and he says "I can't believe you called me! I'm a fan of your art for Lord of the Rings!” So we were like, "you're the man, no you're the man"! So we went out to dinner and I showed him my sketches. Great guy, I loved him instantly, a great human being. He was an amazing guy, he passed away recently, which is tragic. My artwork is also featured in their live shows. Paul and I would work off each other. Visuals and sound together. Which is something I've always wanted to do.
It’s funny when I think about it. I never imagined I’d be creating art for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Since I was a child I was interested in a multitude of things in art. So, I don’t specialize in just one thing. I try everything. My general feeling is, I don’t know what’s around the next bend and I don’t want to know. That’s the excitement of it.
It was a true honor to interview one of my favorite illustrators, Greg Hildebrandt. I highly recommend visiting the website for The Brothers Hildebrandt at brothershildebrandt.com. You can also see and purchase more of Greg's beautiful work at Spiderweb Art Gallery by going to their website at spiderwebart.com as well as following him on Facebook and Instagram. If you would like an opportunity to meet Greg in person he will be appearing at Garden State Comic Fest on April 7-8th and visit gardenstatecomicfest.com for more info. I also want to thank Jean Scrocco for all her help with this interview.