Dan Mumford on leaving behind cult movie art to play video games

Your favourite pop culture artist talks to us about paying tribute to classic games of his youth.

The 2010s are over. Dust settles among debris, like something out of the aftermath of a superhero movie finale. 

As we pause to look over the carnage, one thing is clear: the last decade was one where pop culture took over all spheres of public and personal life. Fandom was always there, but the 2010s saw it become undaunted, normalised; even weaponised.

The love, hate and love/hate for all things Star Wars and Marvel saw records smashed, columns written and social media inflamed. Positives and negatives abounded, but the one big plus was a whole army of illustrators making their name through variant movie posters and collectable record sleeves.

One of those digital artists whose work you'd have seen everywhere in the last 5-10 years is Dan Mumford, the London-based creative whose phosphorous 'digital woodcuts' have helped promote movies like Avengers: Endgame and the latest Star Wars trilogy.

Shortly following Dan's posters for Star Wars finale The Rise of Skywalker dropping online, and a month or so before the release of the actual film, I got to interview the artist backstage of Adobe's annual MAX conference in LA. Mumford was there leading illustration sessions using the latest Adobe art software, and the day after our chat the artist presented an online tutorial live from the conference floor.

Find our interview below, where we discuss, among other things, Dan's recent joint show with Anthony Petrie Polygons & Pixelsan exhibition at LA art space Gallery 1988 devoted to classic video games across the decades.

We first met at Adobe MAX 2018. How's life been since then, Dan?

"Do you know what? It’s been very busy, to the point where my brain can’t even compute things. But I think the most exciting thing was after MAX I did a show at Gallery 1988. Basically I’ve done one there every year for the last five years, always in December, and last year it was with Jeff Boyes and Rockets Are Red. We did a three-way show that was about nostalgia, about things in the 80s and 90s that we loved as we grew up.

"This year it’s another split show, with Anthony Petrie, and the theme is just video games. So stuff that I enjoyed in my youth that were video game-based, because that’s something I always wanted to do, as I’ve never really explored that at all in my work."

What games have you focused on for the exhibition?

"Last year I did a couple, starting with Castlevania and Super Metroid (below). What was interesting was the response to those was way better than any of the stuff that was film focused.

"I think that’s because video games are a sort of section of pop culture that doesn’t get as much love necessarily. Obviously there are giant conventions for gaming and stuff, but I still think in terms of artwork, behind-the-scenes sort of stuff, there’s not quite as much as cinema.

"So yeah, the response I got to those was amazing, and that’s when I suggested doing something that’s video game focused. And the gallery were really supportive and thought it was a good idea.

"I’m focusing on some fan favourites, stuff that was really important to me as a kid. Final Fantasy (below), Street Fighter, Tomb Raider, things like that."

Do you think games will come to define cinema in the same way comics did for the 2010s?

"Well, we’ve got The Witcher coming out. But that's based on a book, which is also a video game. But video games are high art these days. They’re not just video games. It’s something far more nowadays. So of course we’re going to see that stuff be adapted into different things. The problem actually is that it then becomes hard. How do you adapt something that’s 50 hours long into a two-hour film? Very hard."

Were you inspired by the packaging for old school games? The sort of stuff Bitmap Books worships and publishes about?

"Yeah, I actually backed their first book on Kickstarter. But it’s interesting because box artwork for video games isn’t quite as important these days.

"Everything’s digital these days, so it’s reduced down to a thumbnail. And obviously that’s just to draw you in.

"I’ve done an alternative cover for a game called Onrush. But I don’t think that ever ended up in the stores. I think it was just a digital thing in the end, which was a shame. I’d love to do more of that sort of stuff, because that’s not a realm I’ve really got to explore."

What else would you like to explore?

"I'd like to do stuff behind the scenes as well. You know, there's this artist called Jock, and he does some great concept art stuff, and that's an interesting part of the industry I would be fascinated by.

"My work isn't concept art style at all. But maybe the looser aspects, like my sketches, could be closer to that. But it's something I would have to explore. I don't know how to even get in there. Maybe one day."

Speaking of movies, each time a new Star Wars film comes around, is it always the same process that sees you making posters for it?

"The process is someone saying, 'Would you like to do it?' I say, 'Of course I will.'"

You've never been 'locked down' as such for each film, then. So when do you get approached to make a poster?

"It’s always few months before the film's released. Because I need the trailers to work on. You know, it’s tough, because literally I have no idea what happens in the film. But I think the things I’ve depicted are important. And obviously someone signed it off somewhere."

How do you go about making them in this manner?

"I sort of feel like the mood for this new film is very grim. It doesn’t seem very hopeful, so I think that’s what I’ve tried to put through those pieces."

What work have you done for the franchise?

"There’s four new posters for The Rise of Skywalker. Obviously that’s a big project, but more importantly it’s exciting because I’d already done four posters for the first two movies, so we’re getting to finish the trilogy with another four, making 12 posters in total.

"That's kind of a dream project to do in such a big capacity. So that’s awesome, I love that."

Was Star Wars big for you growing up?

"It’s funny, because the first trilogy for me was too old. The second trilogy, the prequel trilogy, I was at university, and not really interested in anything that wasn’t girls.

"So this trilogy is like the first time where I’ve really embraced it. It's the first time I’ve been like, 'Yes, I cannot wait for that new film.' Whereas before I was just like, 'Okay.' Do you know what I mean?

"Now I eat all that stuff up. I’m living in nerd nirvana these days. I think we all are actually."

"I hate the word 'nerd', though, and 'nerd culture'. It's pop culture, and pop culture as a whole has become way more accepted, more important. And I get to be a part of it. This is the best job ever, I love it."

Did you see that coming when you started out?

"Not really. Because it wasn’t really a thing, necessarily, 11 years ago. I was doing band T-shirts and CDs, and my artwork style didn’t really belong to anything. It became a music art style, part of a wave of people doing punk album covers, quite graphic, 'cartoony' stuff. And that was cool, I was excited to be part of that, but at no point would I have thought that would transition into me doing movie posters."

"That then translates into all sorts of other stuff. So it’s all a big Jenga tower of things happening."

Do you have any advice for illustrators wanting to make the same journey?

"Someone asked me that yesterday, and it’s really tough to answer (for as explained) it kind of just naturally happened for me.

"I think the best advice is, if you want to do stuff, try and contact the galleries. Because there’s loads of galleries doing these sort of pop culture shows. If they like your work, then they’ll give you an opportunity, and that could lead to anything.

"My work’s been seen at various shows where I then speak to some movie company, and we work together. You really never know who’s going to see it."

Follow Dan Mumford here, and check out this tutorial from the artist of his earlier punk-style work.

Read next: Bitmap Books explore classic video game box art from the 80s and 90s

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