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Geoffrey Mandel

Geoffrey Mandel (serenity graphic designer) - Serenitystuff.com Interview

Saturday 11 February 2006, by Webmaster

When you sat spellbound in the movie theater watching the Serenity’s nose art fill the screen, or the star charts for Miranda that River brought up one-handed, you were seeing the work of Serenity graphic designer Geoffrey Mandel. And the odds are good you’ve seen his work before.

mug_gmandel.jpgSince 1991 Geoffrey has designed, produced, or animated graphics for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Space: Above & Beyond, JAG, Star Trek: Insurrection, The X-Files, X-Men, V.I.P., Star Trek: Voyager, Enterprise, Solaris, 24, Spider-Man 2, NCIS, Serenity, Numb3rs, Las Vegas, and Mission Impossible III. He is the author of Star Trek Star Charts, an Amazon.com top seller, as well as several books on desktop publishing, and his work on Serenity can be seen throughout the Serenity Visual Companion. Geoffrey is currently working on an animated television series in collaboration with Zoic, the visual effects house responsible for Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and Serenity.

Q: How did you get such a cool job?

int_mandel_starcharts.jpgI’ve always done graphics on the side, even when I was in film school, and when I moved to L.A. in the early 90s, my friend Doug Drexler got me a job as a P.A. on DS9. Basically busy work (making coffee, delivering blueprints), but the higher-ups were nice enough to let me do some graphics now and then. I later applied for the job of graphic artist on Babylon 5 (and lost out to Alan Kobayashi), and when they were looking for a graphic artist with sci-fi experience for Space: Above & Beyond, I got the job. Showing them a copy of Star Trek Maps certainly didn’t hurt.

Q: Was being an obsessed Star Trek fan beneficial to your career? (we obsessed Browncoats need the encouragement!)

Unfortunately, it doesn’t help you get a job on Star Trek to say that you’re an obsessed fan... in fact, it pretty much guarantees that you won’t be hired. All the truly rabid Trek fans working on the show were closet Trekkies, and the producers would veto anything that sounded like the original series. Luckily, that eased up a bit during the last few seasons of Enterprise.

However, I suspect that the producers of Serenity would have been glad to hire Browncoats with the right experience, if any could be found. Aside from myself and set designer Tim Earls, the only Firefly fan I met on the Serenity crew was a set dresser who made it his mission to track down the original control panels from the Serenity’s bridge.

Q: And did he?

Amazingly, yes. He even found the lockers with the yellow numbers that go at the back of the bridge.

Q: Were you a Firefly fan before you worked on Serenity?

Yes, big time. I was always a Buffy and Angel fan, and was blown away by the writing and effects on Firefly. I remember watching “Objects In Space” when it was first aired on Fox and thinking, “Wow, this is really great television!” In fact, I was a bit jealous when my buddy Tim Earls landed a job as set designer on Serenity. (He also worked as an conceptual illustrator on the pilot for Firefly, so he had a hand in the early design of Serenity itself.) Fortunately, Tim gave my resume to the art director, and they called me in for an interview.

Q: Joss’ future is grittier and more “real” than many of the classic science fiction utopias. Was it different designing for the ‘verse after working in the universes of Star Trek, Space: Above and Beyond, and your other hangouts?

int_mandel_bluesun.jpgEach job has its own challenges. With Trek, the graphic look has already been worked out in great detail, so it’s a question of doing variations on a theme...a Klingon control panel always has to look like a Klingon control panel. For S:AAB, the graphic look was supposed to be more World War II than present-day (or futuristic) military; in retrospect, the graphics look a little cartoony or comic-bookish to me, but hey, it was my first show. For the Serenity ‘verse, I knew the look of the series (combining English with Chinese, high-tech with the Old West), and tried to take it one step further. The graphics on the series were fairly flat... for instance, the original Alliance seal looks more like a manhole cover. I knew there was a potential for bold, Trek-style graphics, and did all I could do to work them into the movie.

Q: How much material did you design for Serenity?

int_mandel_logo.jpgI did quite a lot: the actual Serenity logo, the look of Serenity and Alliance computer screens (the actual animation was done by Zoic), the classroom computer that River uses, the Alliance logo and graphics seen on the Operative’s ship, and all the patches and insignias worn on uniforms (many of which Jayne “borrows” from corpses). Also, the Fruity Oaty Bar ad, the Worlds of the Alliance chart, and the star map that were reprinted in the Visual Companion. Oh, and all the graphics on the mule, and the stuff you see in the trading post on Lilac. When you see Inara painting the Serenity logo at the end of the movie, that’s actually a member of the paint crew working from my template.

Q: How much was from you and how much was passed down from on high?

Joss is one of those wonderful directors who welcomes ideas from his crew, and gets excited when he sees something cool. He had lots of input into the Serenity and Alliance logos, but was pretty laid back about everything else; for instance, he liked the currency and the computer screens right away. The production designer, Barry Chusid, had a very clear idea of what he wanted, and gave me much more guidance than Joss did, but once he realized that I was capturing the right look (and pleasing the powers-that-be), he let me go to town. Only a few of the designs that I came up with weren’t used, partly because of budgetary reasons... for instance, signage for the abandoned city on Miranda.

Q: How did you go about getting into Joss’ head and coming up with designs? Were power tools involved? Is it true that if you lean next to his naked brain, you can hear singing?

int_mandel_fruity.jpgExcept for saying “hi” in passing, I didn’t really have much interaction with Joss, but I thought I knew what he was looking for, based on what I knew about him and from watching “Firefly.” For instance, when I did the Fruity Oaty Bar ad, I was thinking about Mr. Sparkle on “The Simpsons,” and it turned out that Joss had the same thing in mind when he wrote the jingle. I tried very hard not to borrow the look of other science fiction shows like Trek or S:AAB, and to come up with a whole new visual reference.

int_mandel_money.jpgThe currency was based on the same Nepalese note as the money used in the series, but instead of stretching it out of shape and muddying the color, I made it big and colorful... like the old “horse blanket” U.S. currency from the 1920s. The planets on the currency (and the Worlds of the Alliance chart) were all created in LunarCell, which I also used for the Star Trek Star Charts book.

Q: Did you sneak any easter eggs into Serenity that we should know about?

int_mandel_cruiser.jpgThe biggest in-joke is the serial number of the Alliance research & rescue vessel on Miranda: C-57D, which happens to be the serial number of the Earth cruiser in Forbidden Planet. I’m also responsible for the Blue Sun labels you see in the cargo hold and the mess... just my little nod to the series.

Q: You had production images from Serenity on your website briefly, but they were taken down and now there’s no mention of it there. What happened?

My bad, I shouldn’t have posted the Serenity images before the movie came out, and took them down at the request of the producers. I hope to put them back up soon.

Q: Any chance of a Serenity Star Charts book?

More likely a ‘verse poster, if I can resolve the one star system/multiple star system issue.

Q: Any plans for more artwork such as the Malcolm Reynolds wanted poster you designed for the first Flanvention?

ebay_malwanted.jpgIf I do another wanted poster, it would probably be of River. I took an informal poll at the Big Damned Flanvention, and the Serenity item that most people want is a blueprint of the ship, something that I’ve been discussing with Tim Earls.

Q: What sort of response have you received from the fans?

Very positive, once they figure out exactly what it is I did.

Q: What do you think about the fan-made designs?

There’s some really nice stuff out there, particularly the eBay stuff by Ben Mund. He has the look down cold.

Q: What’s next for you?

I worked on Mission: Impossible III last summer, and it looks like I’ll be doing some graphics for a Will Ferrell movie called Blades of Glory.

Q: Would you be up for a Serenity sequel?

You bet!