Imagine you’re having a conversation with your favourite grandpa. You ask a question, hoping for a direct response, but instead you get a long-winded story that features a haunted cigarette machine, Siamese twins (I know, conjoined twins
would be more PC, but remember, this is grandpa who’s doing the talking, and as far as he’s concerned, ‘Japs’, ‘faggots’ and ‘Siamese twins’ are descriptive and accurate) and a guy named Stu. You follow this seemingly absurd tangent for about ten minutes, until you’re certain the old guy is ready to be checked into a home, then, just as you’re about to give up for good, he pulls the whole thing together with a single sentence, and suddenly the entire universe makes sense.
Interviewing Pablo Ferro is like that.
You might not recognise the name, but no doubt you remember the title sequence from Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Beetlejuice, As Good as it Gets
and, more recently, Napoleon Dynamite
. With a career that has spanned six decades; I’m a little unsure where to start, so I jump in with the biggest question I can think of.
‘What’s it like getting to spend your life doing what you love?’
Ferro takes a breath.
‘People want to create new things, but nothing is new; only what has been forgotten. You copy something from the 1870s and it looks new…’
I try to follow his story, but I can’t quite get the thread. With the impatience of my generation, I press into questions about his past.
Born and raised in Cuba, Ferro first came to America in the 40s. At high school in New York, he began teaching himself animation techniques from a book by Preston Blair, and it wasn’t long before he had developed three comic books, which were ‘too gory’ for publication. With ink and pencil, he learned how to build an entire story in storyboards. ‘When you make a comic book,’ Ferro explains, ‘you do everything. You’re the actor, the cameraman. Everything.’
It was as a New York teen that Ferro got his first job in cinema, working as an usher in a 42nd Street theatre that screened foreign films. Around this time, he met up with Stan Lee, the man who would become the editor of Marvel Comics, and created a series of sci-fi adventure comics. After his run in the theatre, he began freelancing at Academy Pictures and Elektra Studios as an animator.
He got his first real media job working for a studio that produced black and white commercials. It was here that he received his first qualified training from former Disney animator William Tytla.
In the 1960s, while working on an ad campaign for Burlington Mills, Ferro came up with a technique that stitched together multiple sources of media – animation, live action, lettering and graphics – sometimes in a single frame, creating a sort of media overload that was eerily prophetic. It wasn’t long before Ferro got noticed by an avant-garde, young director named Stanley Kubrick, who was dazzled by the artist’s quick-cut ‘stitching’ technique.
‘Stanley saw my commercial and he wanted me to do his commercial for Dr. Strangelove. And I went over there, and he’s such a charming person, and very generous also. He talked me into coming over to meet his family, and he got me a great apartment and a car 24 hours a day, and all I had to do was make a call and they’d show up. Who could turn that down?’
Ferro composed his own music for Dr. Strangelove because the composer couldn’t keep up with the speed of the edits. He also designed the title credits with his own elongated script. Kubrick showed Pablo’s Strangelove trailer on the wall outside the box office of movie theatres, and people were blown away by the new look.
When the agency saw the way people responded to Ferro’s quick-cut technique, they begged him to do a series of film previews: Jesus Christ Superstar, The Thomas Crown Affair, Harold and Maude, Being There… The list is too enormous to recount. Ferro hit the mother load in 1997, creating the title designs and sequences for the Oscar award winning films Good Will Hunting, As Good as it Gets, LA Confidential and Men in Black.
And he didn’t slow down. In 1998, the Director’s Guild of America honoured him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He followed that up with My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Manchurian Candidate and, of course, Napoleon Dynamite. Most recently Ferro’s life has been honoured in the documentary, Pablo, directed by friend and collaborator, Richard Goldgewicht. The film features a mash up of animation, documentary footage and interviews with 40 of his friends and artistic compatriots.
In 2006, Ferro contracted a stomach illness, which has kept him out of the studio for the last year.
‘So,’ I ask lamely. ‘Any plans to retire?’
‘This is what I been trying to tell you,’ says Ferro with infinite patience. ‘You asked me what it’s like spending my life, doing what I love… A friend in New York had a loft with 18-foot ceilings. For Christmas, she showed up with a tree, so I helped her hang it. Upside down… The urge to create is always there’.