Redesigning the entire He-Man franchise for a live-action film debut would seem a daunting task to just about anyone. A designer would have to somehow maintain the eclectic mix of sci-fi and fantasy elements under budgetary constraints and still try to give the film a level of believability. That was the task set before Bill Stout for the 1987 live action film version of “Masters of the Universe”. A true visionary in the field, Stout’s designs supplied a fresh take on the heroes, villains, and locations while still maintaining the flavor of the original concepts. In conjunction with www.motumovie.com, Mr. Stout took some time out of his schedule to sit down and answer a few questions about his design work and the finished film…
1. Let’s start at the beginning… What was your job title on the film?
Initially I was hired to do storyboards. I began to create concept art as well, almost right from the start. When production designer Geoffrey Kirkland left the film, he recommended me to take his place as the film’s production designer. Production Designer was my ultimate credit on the picture.
2. What segment of the production were you responsible for?
As production designer I was responsible for everything you saw on the screen except for the performances of the actors.
3. How did you first get approached for the project?
I was very in-demand as a film designer at the time. I had also just worked for Cannon Films on the remake of Invaders From Mars. As I recall, it was just another phone call and job that came my way. I typically got about five or six film offers every January back then. I’d just choose the ones that seemed the most interesting.
4. So were you responsible for the full designs on all the new characters featured in the film (Gwildor, Saurod, Blade, & Karg)?
Although I designed the others you mentioned (and re-designed the old characters), Gwildor was mostly designed by Claudio Mazzoli.
5. Can you tell us more about the process in designing and bringing these characters to life?
It all starts with the script, then early consultations with the director. I try to create mini-histories of each character to make them real in my mind. If I’m not convinced they’re real, how can I expect to convince our audience? I try to imagine the culture of each creature or character and what would be important to them within the context of their culture and habitat.
6. Were there any of these new characters that differed greatly in the film from your original concept, or were they all pretty close to your designs?
I insisted that my designs be followed to the letter. The only ones that differed greatly were Skeletor’s Stormtroopers. I fought hard not to have them look like Star Wars Stormtroopers painted glossy black but I sadly lost that battle.
7. As you stated, you also had to go back and redesign many of the established characters, such as Skeletor and He-Man. How did you approach that task and what sort of restrictions (if any) did Mattel place on this process?
I knew I had to do some pretty major re-designs of the established characters for a number of reasons. Mattel had so many of those stupid, interchangeable limbs and bodies. You can’t repeat costuming like that in a film. It will make your movie look ridiculously cheap if you do. He-man’s appearance and haircut were quite dated and, frankly, lame. I couldn’t wait to get rid of his silly bangs. I wanted this film to kick ass, enchant and appeal to everyone — not just the little kids who owned the toys.
8. So both Moebius and Caludio Mazzoli were part of the design team pretty early on then?
Yes. Claudio was already there when I was hired. He was hired by the director who had previously worked with Mazzoli on a number of theme park attractions. I brought my friend Jean (Moebius) Giraud on board after I became the Production Designer.
9. What was their part in the process and how much interaction did you have with them?
Because he is such a spectacularly creative guy, I threw a few specific very difficult problems at Moebius. I mainly had him do his takes on the Throne Room, on the re-design of He-man and had him create ideas in regards to the appearance of the Sorceress. Moebius lived in nearby Santa Monica. My assistant would drive over there and pick up his work each day. Claudio was right there in the production offices, so I saw him every day. He was a very funny guy. It blew my mind to meet an Italian who didn’t care much about food! At the behest of the director, Claudio designed those very Star Wars-ian Stormtroopers. He also designed most of Gwildor. I loved Claudio but I had a lot of problems with his color sense and design sense. In some ways he was very Italian…
10. When designing the characters, were you aware of who would be portraying He-Man and Skeletor?
Yes; I worked over photographs of the actors.
11. Did the actors have any input on their designs?
Dolph Lundgren tried to and Frank Langella did. We had several fittings with Frank. His input was valuable. During the fittings with Dolph I talked him out of what he wanted to do, costume-wise.
12. Oh really? What was it Dolph wanted to do?
Julie Weiss, my costume designer, called me in a panic from a fitting with Dolph. He was insisting on wearing these kick boxing boots that were cut mid-lower leg. I immediately drove over to the fitting. I looked at Dolph in the short boots (Julie and I both wanted him in long boots). I told him they looked just terrific, except for the fact that they made him look rather effeminate.
Whoosh! Off came the short boots; on went the tall boots. The boots were never an issue again.
13. Funny to hear the opposite ends of the spectrum there. How do you feel about the translation of your designs into the film?
By the time I was making Masters, I had logged plenty of film design experience. I knew how to get the best from people. If, after my best efforts, people didn’t execute things the way I wanted, I either fired them or gave their particular design job to someone else. I knew feelings would be hurt but I also knew that in ten years the public wouldn’t give a damn about whether some one’s ego got bruised during the making of our movie. Pain is temporary; the film is forever. That’s my way of saying that I think overall the film looks damn good, considering.
14. So I guess it’s fair to say you were pleased with how everything turned out?
I was and am. I’m especially proud of the Throne Room. For a while that was the number one Photo-Op in Los Angeles if you were lucky enough to visit the set.
15. I wish I could have seen that in person! Looking back, do you feel any particular characters or themes were handled better than others?
Yes; most people on the film were really disappointed that Saurod met such an early demise. He looked great — very distinctive. And Pons Maar moved incredibly well in that costume. He really brought Saurod to life. We should have had Skeletor kill some of the other henchmen instead of Saurod prior to Saurod’s death. Frank Langella’s performance as Skeletor, despite having to wear a mask that hid his expressive face, was stunning. What a talented actor! The way he moved!
16. We know that the Snakemen and She-Ra were featured in some early drafts of the film. Did you do any conceptual work on these characters or any others that didn’t make it into the film?
I didn’t do any Snakemen designs (Claudio might have) but I did design a new costume for She-Ra, which the director approved.
17. Were there any existing characters from the cartoons or toys that you wanted to take a crack at redesigning that weren’t part of the film, like Trap Jaw or Tri-Klops?
I know that no one wanted to do Stinkor… I was disappointed when She-Ra was cut. Unless they were already in the script, there really wasn’t much time available to spend lamenting about which toys didn’t make it into the film. We were busy… we had to make a movie!
18. Set design was also one of your duties, including everything from the enormous Castle Grayskull to the Robby’s Ribs restaurant…
Creepy Masters Trivia: The front parking lot of Robby’s Ribs ‘n’ Chicken in reality is where Rodney King was beaten years later.
19. Yikes! I did not know that… Can you take us behind the process of designing something as epic as Grayskull, both interior and exterior?
I knew the Grayskull exterior was going to be a matte painting, so that freed me to design whatever I wanted. I was mostly inspired by Xanadu in Citizen Kane and Skull Island in Disney’s Peter Pan. Coincidentally, we were shooting at Culver City’s Laird Studios, originally the old RKO Studios, where King Kong and Citizen Kane were made. I spent one morning I rummaging around in their old prop house, hoping to find another Rosebud. My designs for the Grayskull interior were sparked by what Moebius had drawn. I took his ideas and expanded upon them. This was the seat of power for the entire universe. I reasoned that power is neither good nor bad — it’s what you make of it and how you use it. So, above floor level were what I called the Space Gods, giant bronze statues of those who had used the power based in that room for good. Below floor level was the dark side, demonic creatures that represented power used for bad or evil. Once I had a design I was happy with my job became a matter of finding the right painters, builders and sculptors to execute it — and then to make sure that it was lit properly.
20. I truly believe that the Grayskull throne room set is one of the most impressive physical sets ever created for film. It’s so enormous! How did you pull that off?
For the Throne Room I used the two largest adjoining sound stages then had the wall knocked out between them to make one gigantic sound stage. It was the largest set Hollywood had seen in about forty years. Everyone in the business came to see it.
21. What was it like walking onto this set after having designed it?
Quite frankly, I felt like God.
22. I’ll bet! Were there any parts in the design that particularly jumped out at you in finished form?
It still blows my mind that in just a few minutes my set painters could make plywood look so much like marble that you had to get mere inches away from it to see that it wasn’t.
23. The counterpart to Castle Grayskull in the He-Man mythos is Skeletor’s lair- Snake Mountain. Were you aware of this part of the lore and if so were you disappointed this location didn’t make it into the film?
Yes, I was aware of its lore. The creator of the Masters of the Universe world, Don Glut, is an old friend of mine. I drew a lot of Snake Mountain exteriors and interiors. It was disappointing that so little of that work or those designs ended up getting used.
24. I’m sure the fans are just as disappointed as you are that it didn’t make it. Were there any set designs that were deemed too cost-prohibitive to produce or that simply didn’t make the final cut of the movie?
About a third of them, which is typical for almost every movie I’ve ever worked on (I’ve done 45 feature films). The biggest sets cut were the Eternia Royal Palace and Skeletor’s Palace. The Eternia Royal Palace looked like grand, cosmic, Cirque du Soleil Art Nouveau. Skeletor’s Palace had a series of byways throughout its floor plan with small rivers of lava flowing around his throne.
25. How do you feel about the final film overall?
I was pleased and amazed we got a coherent movie out of the whole thing. For a while it looked as if that wasn’t going to happen.
26. So were you pleased with how it turned out then?
Very pleased for the most part. I thought the performances of Frank Langella, Meg Foster, Pons Maar and Jon Cypher were especially great.
27. Mattel manufactured 3 figures based off of the film – Gwildor, Blade, and Saurod. What was it like seeing your designs produced as action figures and did Mattel work with you at all on the design of the toys?
I delivered the designs and Mattel built them pretty close to what I had done. It was really cool to see my designs as toys. Unfortunately, Masters of the Universe had long ago seen its peak; none of the figures sold the way Mattel (and all of us) had hoped.
28. If you had to do it all over again, with no budget or studio constraints, is there anything in particular you would change?
The first thing would be to re-design the Stormtroopers so that they didn’t look like rip-offs of the Star Wars Stormtroopers. That’s an irritant every time I watch the film. I’d like a different score, one that didn’t sound exactly like the score to Superman. I would also push harder for better, more spectacular special effects. And, I’d have liked to have visually explored more of Eternia.
Simple: Hire me as Production Designer (or even Director) and then stand back and let me do what I do best. I guarantee I’ll deliver a film that is so visually stunning it will make you scream for more. Honest.
That’s a movie I’d like to see! Thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to do this William! It’s a real treat getting to hear you take on the film and see some of the great art you’re sharing with us!
For more information on William Stout, please visit: WWW.WILLIAMSTOUT.COM
Interview by James Sawyer – June 2010
Originally posted at motumovie.com