You know his work. You love his work. And that's because artist Jason Palmer truly loves Firefly. He's been illustrating professionally for over 15 years now, creating images and prop designs and comic book covers and trading cards and DVD covers and more for a variety of licenses such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Without a Trace, Happy Feet, and Harry Potter. But his licensed illustrations of the crew of the Serenity are a labor of love that have endeared him to the Browncoat community, and he continues to create more. Currently he's making portraits of each crew member, available separately or as a set (see the end of the interview for more details).
I caught up to him at the FX Con in Orlando this year (pictured with his wife Yelena) to finally get the interview we agreed on at the last FX con. It was worth the wait.
SS: Jason, how did you get started doing licensed artwork?
JP: Well, as far as Serenity and Firefly goes, originally, at the promotional convention for the Firefly DVD, I did a piece just on my own, I thought I should do something to key in on this. So I did a pencil piece for Firefly that you see here, and it was really popular. Joss loved it, Nathan loved it, every… the whole cast really liked it. I kept getting requests about it so I worked it up into a full-fledged painting and it got very popular so I thought, let’s go ahead and get the license, so that’s what we did.
SS: You were already a fan?
JP: Oh, big time, yeah. I actually saw “The Train Job” when it first aired and thought “Wow, this is different, this is very cool.” I was a little leery because there had been so many sci-fi disappointments and things that were just kind of hackneyed but I could tell this looked different. I was a little confused because of the showing out of order–
SS: Lot of people were.
JP: –but I continued to watch and I remember when, about the third or fourth episode that I said, “This is really great.” Then I was attached. Really loved it, and of course right when you start loving it is when it’s gone.
SS: So it’s your fault?
SS: I wondered!
JP: Just before that promotional show we picked up the Firefly DVD and my wife was instantly hooked, she freebased the episodes in about a day and a half and we just loved it. And I knew it was something special. At the time I thought, do people really appreciate it? Are there that many people who love this the way I do? I don't go on the boards, so I didn't know what was going on out there. But I remember at that show, when people were waiting for the cast to do the panel, everybody just started singing the theme song. (laughs) In unison, everybody… and I thought yeah, OK, it’s here. That was when it kinda opened my eyes about how much love there was for it. My wife even said, “Is anybody gonna get it?” and everybody was asking for those prints, it was just a drawing at the time.
SS: How do they sell compared to the rest of your properties?
JP: Oh, so much more… it is my main license now, and it has been the popular thing. People love Star Wars and people love Star Trek — of course, they are great – but people looove Firefly and Serenity.
SS: They get passionate about it.
JP: They get passionate and they want it on their walls, they say, OK, this is my thing. And they know a lot of people are coming to come over and say “What’s that?” And that's their opportunity to tell ‘em, “You gotta see it.”
SS: What kind of reaction do you get from the stars when they see their portraits?
JP: They’ve all been very supportive.
SS: No one’s “Oh my God, I look fat!”
JP: No. (laughs) No, not one of them. The best thing I ever heard was at that first show, security came over and said “Can you come with us, please,” and I thought, “Uh oh…” (laughter)
SS: You never want to hear that.
JP: They ushered me over to Joss and he said, “This is great, this is the best compliment I’ve gotten to my show.” Now I thought that was an awesome thing to say. I’m sure he’s gotten better compliments, but it was a nice thing to hear.
SS: Well, considering the amount of work you put into each one of them you’ve got to be dedicated. Do you ever do any work on a show you’re not interested in?
JP: I have to work on a lot of things I’ve just never heard of. A lot of my day job stuff, stuff you don’t see here, is where an advertising company says we’re pitching this new show, here’s what it’s about, here’s some of the actors, they send me some pictures and I work some stuff up. You have to get interested in it somewhat, you have to find something about it that’s cool –the whole point is to tell a story. I love the idea of taking something that has a factor of time and distilling it into one image and it’s going to– bam, give you the sense of what that’s about. You have so many options there. How do you show the actors, the characters, how do you show the story. You have to find something that’s going to spark the imagination and, of course, interest.
SS: Trying to find the one iconic image of each one.
JP: Which is what I’m doing with the current series of portraits. I was just talking to Adam Baldwin, I was telling him I’ve sketched him out twice and obviously it would have been great to have the Jayne print finished for this show but what I had wasn't quite right. It wasn’t iconic; it wasn’t that wise guy – as Adam says, “snarky” – look that I was going for. For the Serenity print I showed him a little more solemn but for the portrait… you just have to go with your gut. You wanna show Jayne, you want to sum up that character.
SS: When do you expect to finish the cast portraits?
JP: You know, I was originally telling people I’d have it done by the end of ’06. But the problem is the nature of this business. Other clients call with last minute projects, stuff like an ad or TV show for Warner Brothers or Lucasfilm, or something like that. It's usually urgent, and usually hey are on a tight deadline, and I have to drop what I'm doing to accommodate them. So those things eat into my time. But as soon as I'm done, I get right back to Universal, to the Serenity portraits. I don’t want people waiting too much longer. A lot of people have committed by buying the whole set, which is great. But I don’t want to disappoint anybody with the quality.
SS: A while back you were starting to do images of each episode. Is that on hold, are you going to get back to that?
JP: I did “Shindig,” so… Yeah, I would like to get back to that, right now I'm committed to the portraits line, but I would definitely like to do the episodic line. Even if I didn’t make prints and sell it, I’d still want to do it, just for my own satisfaction.
SS; One last thing, I’m going to name the characters, let me know what you think about – as an artist – what you think about each one.
JP: All right.
JP: Mal’s great – he’s such a great character, there’s so much to him, and Nathan’s got this, kind of, different kind of handsomeness. He’s not this typical soap opera star – I know he came from soap operas – but he’s got this, this chin and nose thing which is very unique, and you can just capture him that way. And Nathan himself is extremely smart, very sensitive – I should say he has sensitivity – very funny, very clever guy. In fact he comes up with the funnies so fast. Ooh, I wish I had that speed, you know, the kind of stuff you think of as you're driving home — Nathan thinks of on the spot.
SS: Not really fair, speed and good looks, and the funny, and the… he’s gotta have something wrong with him—
JP: Yeah, absolutely.
JP: Zoe, she is very uniquely beautiful, and not an easy likeness to capture.
SS: I think you did a great job.
JP: Thank you! Yeah, she is just beautiful, Zoe's got that soldier's hundred-yard stare, which she has earned, and I was pretty happy to have gotten that.
JP: Wash, I haven’t gotten him yet, and that’s kind of interesting for Serenity because he is a happy-go-lucky guy. He’s a guy who… he brings light into the situation, he makes you look at the flip side of something, yet he has a grim face in it, and—
SS: Oddly shaped jaw, too—
JP: That’s not the problem, the problem is conveying the right attitude and mood.
JP: Jayne, like I was saying I’ve done him twice and I haven’t captured him to my satisfaction yet. As you can see I’ve done one for the show (FX 2007). It’s not a problem of doing Jayne. It’s that, for this line I want to sum him up in a certain way. I have it, in my head, how I want it. I mean, I’m very happy with the way he looks in the Firefly plint, Firefy… that’s not easy to say. Firefly print.
SS: Not after a long day, no. (laughter)
JP: Or the Serenity print, I’m very happy with how he looks in those. There’s just a certain something that I just haven’t gotten yet (for the portraits line).
JP: Kaylee… also the superimposing of the engine room, I don’t want to overwhelm it but I wanted to make sure there’s a little grease smudged on her face, yet the happy colors of her sleeves, that all told a story. And the scheme, a little bit of red to show there’s always a little bit of a fire to put out for her. That’s all thought out ahead of time, and she’s always ready to fix it.
SS: She’s probably my favorite out of the Serenity set you’ve done so far. I think you managed to make it look like she’s not a serious person, who’s being serious at the moment.
JP: That’s exactly what I was going for, and you’ll also notice she’s holding tools. Well, you can say she’s a mechanic, but you’ll notice that in a situation when things are getting rough she tries to say the right thing to bring people who are at odds… she tries to fix more than just the engines.
JP: Book was my favorite one to do. (laughs) He was my favorite one to do. I just love the Jack Green lit scene, and I was just saying this to Ron yesterday that I think this was a pivotal scene because he breaks down what Serenity is about. It’s about the power of belief. You don’t believe in something, what are you bringing to it? When I first thought of it I wanted to show him in profile, I wanted to show him with the cigar, I wanted to show him looking off. It's my personal favorite so far.
JP: Simon, I’ve drawn him out—
SS: I’ve seen the sketch on your site.
JP: Yes, the sketch is done, and he’s actually pretty easy to do. He’s got this quizzical look—
SS: Everything about him is right on the surface. (laughter) Not a whole lot of hidden anything with him.
JP: He is the kind of person where you would know where you stand. I’ve met Sean and he is that way himself. Not like Simon, but he is upfront. Whatever he’s thinking, that’s what he says, he’s not trying to put on airs.
JP: That was fun. I have her in the shadows of her own hair, yet she’s holding violence. I kept the background just as blue openness. There was no one background that made sense for her so I left it there and it works.
SS: She kind of carries her own background with her anyways.
SS: She may not be seeing what we’re seeing.
JP: There’s a sense of light and sparkle about it, yet it’s a little foreboding. She’s a wonderful character. Summer’s been very supportive and she really liked the image.
JP: Ooh, Inara’s kind of interesting because she will be in the super-cool archer outfit—
SS: Oh, nice. Will she have the bow, or will she have the gun they put in afterwards?
JP: I have been going back and forth on it. (laughter) A good friend of mine, Adam Hughes, he and I got into Firefly together. The next day after the first show aired we were talking on the phone about it—
SS: Adam Hughes the artist?
JP: Yes, and we just really supported, loved it. We called each other, we’ve known each other for about 15 years and it was just striking a chord with us, we loved it. I asked him, what do you think, do I go with the Zoic bowcaster – which is pretty cool, I think everything Zoic does is cool – but I really picture her with the bow and arrow. Adam agreed, but he said it would be really funny to show her with the bow and arrow and then have the bowcaster or… whatever you… bolt-thrower? – draw that on a separate piece of paper and you can just (laughter) paste it on top. (laughter)
SS; Make it as completely geeky as you possibly could.
JP: Exactly. I’ll look into that.
SS: The Operative.
JP: The Operative? What a great character. He's a character who is equal to all the characters in Serenity with just a few scenes. You see him at the beginning and you say, wow, this is a guy to be feared and admired—
SS: In a weird way.
JP: –in a weird way, and I think he’s the flip side of Shepherd Book, I think we’ve got Shepherd Book’s back story through the Operative, I’m sure a lot of people think that. Might be wrong, but I think it’s fun to think about.
SS: Until we find out, we can think whatever we want.
SS: What about the ship Serenity?
JP: The ship, I’m looking forward to doing that one too. You gotta see it soaring.
SS: What’s coming up? Here’s your chance, what do you want to pimp?
JP: (laughs) I’m going to be doing a piece for both Celebration shows (Star Wars). I’ve been thinking for months what to do for the ultimate Celebration Star Wars image, to sum it all up. How do you sum up the best trilogy, it’s a bit of an overwhelming thing. I could go the easy route and just show Padme in the slave Leia bikini and everyone would love it, but I don’t know if that’s the way to go. So… (laughs)
SS: Just sell that one separately on your site…)
JP (laughs) It’s cool, I like what Lucas is doing, they offer everyone a chance to do this limited license and you get to do something that you love, and I’ll play around with some ideas for that. I’m looking forward to seeing what I come up with.
Jason's booth was pretty popular with fans, con organizers, and stars alike and it's easy to see why. Along with his wonderful Firefly and Serenity prints (seen at the top of this page) Jason's powerful, evocative portraits of each crew member grab your eyes from across a room, even one as crowded as this one.
Each one is available as a limited edition Giclee print, 13?x19?, with a double mat to fit a 16?x20? frame, only 300 available. They’re also available as one of only a hundred prints on Fine Art canvas, on a 14?x20? thin black canvas frame. All of them are signed and numbered. You can get a discount by preordering an entire set (all nine crewmembers and a picture of Serenity), plus you’ll get an exclusive portrait of the Operative that won’t be sold separately! You can also order River prints autographed by Summer Glau.
See JasonPalmer.net for more details, and some peeks at upcoming works.
All images © Jason Palmer Art, used by permission.