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Biographies of the Stars

Interview with Steve Oliff (1994)

COMIC-ART.COM: Hi, I'm speaking with Steve Oliff, it is September 21st, 1994. Okay, Steve, my first question is: How long have you been working as a comic book colorist?

STEVE: Since 1978.

COMIC-ART.COM: 1978. A long time.

STEVE: Quite a while, yes.

COMIC-ART.COM: How did you break into the business?

STEVE: Actually, I started by doing fanzine stuff and going to conventions, and big break actually was with Howard Chaykin doing The Stars My Destination...

COMIC-ART.COM: Oh, you colored that?

STEVE: Yeah, I helped him color that. Then I did also a story in The Illustrated Harlan Ellison for Byron Preiss many years ago, and that's where I started.

COMIC-ART.COM: A lot of people have worked for Byron over the years.

STEVE: Oh, yes.

COMIC-ART.COM: Myself included.

STEVE: Oh, cool.

COMIC-ART.COM: I remember the coloring on The Stars My Destination. Was that markers?

STEVE: It was mostly, yes. In fact, that's all we used, and colored pencil.

COMIC-ART.COM: Okay, well, from the early stuff, working on fanzines, do you remember any of the names?

STEVE: Yes. The first full-color stuff I did was a Neal Adams cover for Venture number five. It had Brent Anderson and Gary Winnick and Frank Cirroco, all did art in it. It was a local, out of San Jose. They were the hotshots in those days.

COMIC-ART.COM: Oh yeah. I remember how big Cirroco was in the fanzine scene. Okay, so from the fanzine stuff you went on to work with Howard...

STEVE: Right.

COMIC-ART.COM: And did a little work with Byron and...

STEVE: Well, what happened, because Howard flew me to New York. This was the big break. They needed some help, so Byron flew me out there and I rented a room in Howard's mother's house out in Queens. And I stayed there for four months, helping him work on the book and I got the grand total of fifteen dollars a day, which was our pay, but basically he was giving me all the, he wasn't making hardly anything either. It didn't matter how many hours we worked, too, that was kind of...But what he did, the big break was that he took me up to Marvel and they were, I, they were just doing the full-color Hulk magazine and that's where I really started . Bill Sienkiwicz's first Moon Knight story was my first coloring job for Marvel.

COMIC-ART.COM: Cool. That's an auspicious beginning.

STEVE: Yeah, I thought so.

COMIC-ART.COM: Okay, and what kind of stuff did you do for Marvel?

STEVE: Mostly that for several years. I colored The Incredible Hulk magazine because that was the only full-color title that was being published at the time. And then when it got cancelled then I just sort of drifted because there was no full-color work and I'm pretty much a specialist. I've done very little coded color over the years.

COMIC-ART.COM: And when you were coloring the Hulk stuff, what were you using to color it?

STEVE: We were using what I dubbed "double-print black" system where we used two photostats and I would use water-soluable markers, and cel vinyl animation paint to color it. But we would use, I could do blackout tricks. I would knock out parts of the black plate so I could get a depth effect, kind of like doing an early, kind of a hand separation. I would add zipatone to certain colors because with the process colors you can't get certain real rich values. You have to have an added K-tone in there. So, that's the system we used.

COMIC-ART.COM: When you say you drifted what kind of work did you do?

STEVE: Well, actually, I went back to spraying tables. I was making redwood burl tables and miscellaneous stuff and did a little freelance artwork, and just kind of, just was basically doing all that kind of stuff because nobody had any use for my talents in the color separation.

COMIC-ART.COM: That must have been kind of disheartening.

STEVE: Well, it was, you know, I was a young colorist kind of going, `Wow! Gee, nobody calls.' Because basically if the companies don't have an immediate need for you a lot of the times you just don't get called back. And especially in those days it was tougher to get in.

COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah. Okay, so how long did this drifting period last?

STEVE: About six, seven months, then I got an odd little job coloring Captain Newfoundland, actually, for this company out of Canada, actually St. Johns, Newfoundland. And then I did a little bit of that, and that got me through until I got my next series of jobs, which I believe that's when I went over to Pacific Comics.

COMIC-ART.COM: And what titles did you work on for Pacific?

STEVE: Well, I did Captain Victory with Jack Kirby. I did Star Slammers, I think with Michael Grell, then I started doing Twisted Tales and Alien Worlds, the Bruce Jones and April, the Bruce and April Jones books.

COMIC-ART.COM: You got to work with some good artists.

STEVE: I got to work with some great artists. I colored Corben and Wrightson and Jeff Jones, and, oh boy, who else? Just the list goes on. And Kirby and Grell was no slouch, either.

COMIC-ART.COM: Did you color any of the Williamson jobs?

STEVE: Yes, I did, actually.

COMIC-ART.COM: That must have been a treat.

STEVE: That was, that was fun. Actually, on those first few books, yeah. Al Williamson liked one of my jobs so much I'm very proud to say, that he sent me one of his newspaper strips just as a thank you.

COMIC-ART.COM: Al's a great guy.

STEVE: He is.

COMIC-ART.COM: So you worked with Pacific. Did you stay with them until Pacific went under?

STEVE: No. I got out just before they did that. I'm, this is an area of my career where I'm a little bit gray because I started doing a lot of little side jobs and stuff and, let's see. I started working for Marvel again. That's right. I was doing Mike Kaluta's and Elaine Lee's Starstruck.

COMIC-ART.COM: Oh, for Epic.

STEVE: Yeah, and I did, remember The Bozz Chronicles? Very short-lived series, about two issues or three or something.

COMIC-ART.COM: That was a nice-looking book, though.

STEVE: It was. I enjoyed it. But that was more flat color again. There still was very small market for full color.

COMIC-ART.COM: When was this, Steve? About '85?

STEVE: Oh, no, no, that would be before then. I would say probably early '81, '82 maybe. By '85 I was working for DC and Howard again. I was doing the Blackhawk miniseries and Cosmic Odyssey and a bunch of stuff, and Time graphic novels. I did those for Howard, and just a bunch of stuff.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, did you find that you liked working with certain artists and you continued working with them a lot, like Howard for instance?

STEVE: Yes. Yeah, I did. We were friends and then we worked on a bunch of different projects. You know, and then I started doing other people, and I started getting a little bit more in demand, and he was doing other things. He went off, to I guess, his American Flagg over at First. I'm not sure. My chronology is a little bit dicey about this stuff because I've done so many pages. And somewhere along there I hooked up with Akira. I think that was about '87, is when that came along.

COMIC-ART.COM: Did you color most of that series?

STEVE: Yeah. I'm actually working on the last issue right now. I mean I have pages from 37 in front of me and then issue thirty-eight, we're working on at the same time. So, it soon will be done. So I've colored every issue of Akira.

COMIC-ART.COM: For a reprint book that book seemed to arouse a lot of interest and I think part of it was due to your coloring.

STEVE: Right. And also Otomo is also an incredible artist, which doesn't hurt. But, yeah, what it was was that was the first book that I used the computer to color. And that started the whole computer coloring revolution that we're experiencing right now.

COMIC-ART.COM: Do you think that was indeed the first comic colored by a computer?

STEVE: Well, yes and no. We were neck and neck with Michael Saenz's Crash, that Iron Man graphic novel. He came out with it about a couple of weeks before we hit with issue number one of Akira. But his was just a one-shot, and ours was the first on-going series colored by computer. So he actually beat us, technically, but it was just a one-shot and I didn't think it looked that good, anyway.

COMIC-ART.COM: Was Saenz using the same kind of system you employed?

STEVE: No, he was using MacIntosh. But he was using low resolution so he had real jaggies and a lot of fuzzyness problems.

COMIC-ART.COM: And what kind of computer do you use?

STEVE: An IBM. Basically it's just a software deal. It worked out that Mike was originally going to do Crash on this system that I use, at that point in time it was called Pixelcraft, but he bailed out on the people in the development and decided he wanted to go with Macintosh instead of IBM at the last minute and left them holding the bag, you know, so that's when they and I got together and I started coloring using their system.

COMIC-ART.COM: Could you describe how you generate the color on a computer in layman's terms?

STEVE: Basically, you scan the artwork in. You get your basic original artwork and you scan it in, and then I also make a reduced xerox copy. So then, from that xerox copy I'll do a hand color guide, in fact, as we're speaking, I'm working on issue, one of the lost issues of Spawn, issue ninteen. I'm doing the last two color guides tonight. Anyway, so I color it by hand to give my computer separators an idea of what it's supposed to look like and then I just give them the guide. They've scanned it in and then they begin putting in polygons and then filling in the colors. They're using our, the program we use is not like a paint package, it's like a color insertion program. And it's a little bit different. It's more of a printing tool as opposed to a painting, graphics tool.
So, anyway, so that's how that works. And then basically look at the guide, try to match the colors that I've put down as close as they can and just, once, then we can get a proof of it and then we compare, see how the guide looks compared to the printer proof, we make corrections and then once we're happy, we send it off to the artist and he makes his corrections. Then we take the disk and send it to the guy who does our film outputting, which is the guy who makes the negatives, it's just getting a little technical, but this is, the guy who makes the negatives that they burnt, that they send up to Ronald's or wherever it's being printed and then from those negatives, they burn the plates, the actual printing plates that are, that make a comic book. And that, in a nutshell, is it.

COMIC-ART.COM: Interesting. Okay, well how long does it take you generate a completed color job on one page?

STEVE: On one page? You mean from the guide all the way through the thing, or...?

COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah, yeah, well I mean as far as like technically, your end.

STEVE: Well, this end. To do a color guide takes me between twenty minutes and an hour, depending upon a lot of factors, like one, how I'm interrupted or if I'm not interrupted, or if I'm on a roll, or if I'm struggling. And then, it takes the computer crew about three hours to about seven to twelve hours for an incredibly complex page, to generate the color separation. And then from there it just goes out to Tony in Film and that takes about twenty minutes per page.

COMIC-ART.COM: How would you rate MacFarlane as far as artistic complexity?

STEVE: He varies. Sometimes he's very simple. Sometimes he's just totally detailed. So, I mean what I call that Spawn magic is very complex stuff to render.

COMIC-ART.COM: So if there's more magic in a particular story it might take longer to color?

STEVE: Well, what it is, is if there's more small areas that need to be colored, see if there's, if there's lot, like if a guy is smashing through a glass window and there's millions of shards, that takes forever to color.

COMIC-ART.COM: I imagine.

STEVE: You know, if you've got a bunch of big, black shadowy, silhouette figures against a simple background, that's easy to color. See, so that's one. An easy page might take an hour and a half, two hours to color. Two hours, you know. About two hours is about short as they get really, now that I think about it. but if you've got hundreds we judge our page on polygons. A simple page could have two hundred polygons to two hundred and fifty polygons. That's a very simple page. But the complex page can have as many as one thousand five hundred polygons, you know, that's the limit of our software. So on some pages we've pretty much pushed the limits, too.

COMIC-ART.COM: It seems like on the Spawn artwork in particular, there's a lot of gray tones and modelling.

STEVE: There is, quite a bit. That's part of the whole style of that particular look, so, yeah, there's a lot more modelling.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, Steve, given your long experience in the business. what kind of advice would you give to somebody who's just trying to break in?

STEVE: To the color guide part, or computer separation part?

COMIC-ART.COM: Whichever you feel like commenting on.

STEVE: Well, I think the basic thing if you're, you must know color, how color relationships work. If you're going to do the guides, you've got to get your colors right. You've got to get good balance, learn how to tell a story with color. That's really a crucial deal that you should you really pay attention to. It's beenn--and remember to look at nature and not just feed on old, other comic books to try to teach you because it really doesn't work. I mean you need to look at what reality does, because what makes Spawn special, I think, is that I tell everybody that we light the comic as if we're lighting for a film. You know, and that gives it a nice sense of depth.
So, if you're going to get into the business, try to study films and look at other things because the style that seems to be evolving now is one that I've dubbed "comic realism". You know, we're trying to render things carefully and in order to do that you have to know how light falls on people's faces, etcetera. And if you're on the computer, everything applies the same except that you've got to deal with the computer, too. You know, so I figured, also one thing, if you're getting into color right now, there's a lot more opportunity now than there ever has been. You know, color is getting more respect as part of the art, as opposed to just part of the production, and there's a lot more companies who are interested in doing high quality color, like, I don't know if you've been following the recent advances at Marvel even. They're one of the late comers to the full color market.

COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah. Their coloring for years has looked relatively crude compared to even some of the independents.

STEVE: Yes it has. It's unfortunate because they've always had the technology. In fact, immediately after we started doing Akira, six months later, World Color Press bought sixteen systems of the system that I had one or two of, and they started coloring all of Marvel's regular books, but they didn't change their style one iota so that it looked like the same old flat, ugly color that we had known for years, but they were using the same kind of equipment that I was using on Akira. And it was really, I think it was a waste of good equipment. They didn't improve the quality.

COMIC-ART.COM: Your advice is well-taken, but tell me, who are some of the colorists you've admired in the past?

STEVE: Well, Neal Adams was one of the first guys who really caught my eye with the old Batman stuff, and there's still a color I call Neal Adams red. Richard Corben, Vaughn Bode, those were big influences on me. I was dissecting how they did their color from way back. Let's see, other places: N.C. Wyeth, illustrator. You know, I really liked his use of color. Jeff Jones and Berni Wrightson, what little color they did. And then more recently, I liked Teddy Christenson very much.

COMIC-ART.COM: I've pretty well covered all the questions I wanted to ask. Do you have anything I didn't bring up that you think is important, as far as coloring theory, or...?

STEVE: Oh, let's see. Coloring, well let me think. No, it's just all I do know is that the better the art that you're given to work on, the easier it is to color. You know, that's always...So, if you can latch up with a good artist,you know, feel lucky.

COMIC-ART.COM: Do you think coloring can improve poor art?

STEVE: Coloring can disguise the fact that the art is kind of weak to a certain point. But the problem is, good color can help bad art, but bad color can really destroy good art. So it's really important to have good color if the art is good. What you don't want is the color to be of a lesser quality than the art. If the color is of a higher quality than the actual art, then you can have an acceptable product, but it's always a shame to ruin good art with bad color. And it happens all the time.

COMIC-ART.COM: Steve, can you give me one example of using coloring to sort of enhance the storytelling.

STEVE: Well, even though they didn't render it very well, I thought that they used color for storytelling in Watchmen very well. I thought Higgins did a real good job. I didn't like the color separation in that book, but the use of color I thought was very good. You know, we try to use, in all my stuff I try to, you know, use the color to really tell the story, you know, and that. So, that's without saying, Olyoptics stuff generally.

COMIC-ART.COM: How big is your operation? How many people work there?

STEVE: Well, I have, it varies. I've got about twelve people, that's in the color separation department, because there's always people coming, you have turnover in crew and stuff. Because you know, with a lot of my people have been syphoned off to go to other places, like Kiko Taganashi went down to Extreme Studios to work on Rob Liefield's work and Abel Mouton and Reuben Rude have gone off and started their own company with Eric Larsen in San Francisco, you know, so those are some of the good guys out there now.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, I spoke to Lovern Kinzierski earlier in the week and he was saying that he thought there was enough work out there for everybody.

STEVE: You know, right now, there certainly is. I think that there's enough work for all sorts of people. You know, it's just, yeah, in fact there's, well, with all the other, yeah, in fact it's growing, the market is really growing right now, for color separators who are good, because, see everybody's just looking. And the problem is, a lot of people are going out and trying to do color separations, but they don't really know how to do color very well. So, as a result, people are starting to go, `Well wait a minute! Why doesn't this look good? We've got the computers, we've got this, we've got that. But, they've got to remember that they actually have to know how to color.

COMIC-ART.COM: One last question. What was your art background like before you became a colorist?

STEVE: I've just drawn all my life. My mother was an artist and I took some high school classes, but that's about as far as it went.

COMIC-ART.COM: Really? So you're mostly self-taught?

STEVE: Yes. But, see I also live in a place where I was, I live in a town of five hundred people up in Mendocino County, right in the heart of the redwoods up here and it's quite often very isolated, so I would spend a lot of time drawing on my own and actually studying how light worked, and you know just, a lot of the things you see in my work, like in particular, if you looked in The Cosmic Odyssey, that's a series I did for D.C. A lot of these, I did some very elaborate skies and airbrush-type paintings, but that was what I was seeing outside my window at the time, so I'd use a lot of reality. And that was my best training, having a good eye.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, you know what they said about Monet when his stuff came out? `That man is nothing but an eye, but my God, what an eye!'

We thank interviewer Steve Ringenberg for this transcript

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