Tunnel Visions

Los Angeles, CA

October 2011

On a train, heading to a place I’ve never been, the intercom system announces it will still take a few more hours until we arrive in Paris. The past few weeks have just been a blur of various European countries, trains, hostels, music festivals, posters and doing work in cafés, leaving me utterly exhausted. I haven’t slept or eaten much in the rush to catch trains and absorb illustrious landmarks.

When I first boarded, I tried working on illustrations for the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but was too tired to continue working.

Just as I finally manage to drift off, my phone buzzes and rouses me from the initial pull of sleep. Justin Ishmael, the creative director of Mondo, is texting me from Los Angeles. “People are losing their minds about the Iron Giant poster.”

“People are losing their minds about the Iron Giant poster.”


Having jumped so many time zones over the past few weeks, I hadn’t even had time to think about that poster. The exciting text barely registers in my exhausted brain, but my heart manages to ignite inside an icy stone body. Still, I am too worn down and hollowed out to even smile. Turning back to go to sleep, thoughts from the weeks leading up to this moment slide into my mind as the weary train rattles on.

February 2003

Taking illustration classes as a student at Cal State Long Beach, my teacher Rick Reese tells the class to watch The Iron Giant, claiming it’s truly an illustrator’s movie. I go home, watch it, get blown away. I’m inspired, revived, born.

But, then again, that movie is my love and I gladly suffer for love.

September 2011

I’m sitting at my desk, at my computer in my studio, when I get a call from Rob Jones, who, well, to this day I still don’t know what exactly he does at Mondo. He asks me if I want to make a poster for Mondo Mystery Movies in Los Angeles for the New Beverly Cinema theater. It sounds like a good idea, but Rob and I go back and forth for a while, not exactly seeing eye-to-eye on movie options. At some point, we stumble onto some common ground when he says, “Tong, how about Iron Giant, you seem to like shit like that.”

Glancing at my calendar, I wonder if I can even cram another job into my workload. My trip to Europe is only a month away, and I still have to prepare for three shows over there. But, then again, that movie is my love and I gladly suffer for love.

A few days later, in line for coffee at Tanner’s, I contemplate the Iron Giant poster. I’m at a loss. With everything creative, there’s nothing at first. That’s the beauty and ugliness of creativity for me. Years ago, I learned to love the emptiness and in doing so, I had found amazing things in the void and brought them into the real world.


The Appleseed Cast


The Bride of Frankenstein



Now, I have to do it again, with less time and for a subject that’s dear to my heart.

My sketchbook comes out and I begin doodling. I don’t really sketch my ideas, but sometimes drawing helps free up my mind. What I’m drawing doesn’t even have to be anything. The first step is to consider the ideas. Watching the movie again isn’t necessary, I’ve seen it so many times.

Some people don’t work well under pressure, but I feel as though pressure is my home. Some of my best work was done the night before a deadline.

The first thing about that movie that really resonates with me was the first scene showing the Soviet satellite Sputnik orbiting the Earth in the vacuum of space. I like the radio waves emanating from it as a graphic element, representing the fear and paranoia it’s presence caused during the Cold War. Within moments, I am convinced a concentric circular composition is the way to go. With the title, The Iron Giant, and massive robot playing the largest role, it’s a given that the robot should be the main part of the poster.

Eventually I start sketching and come up with my idea. There isn’t time to second-guess myself like I had in the past with other posters. My instincts take over. Some people don’t work well under pressure, but I feel as though pressure is my home. Some of my best work was done the night before a deadline.


Sketch for The Iron Giant

Another part of the film that resonates with me is the line “You are who you choose to be.” In my mind, the perfect representation of that quote and what it represented in the movie is the radio wave circles. I make the waves emanating from the robot and use them to separate the boy, Hogarth, the townsfolk, and the military. Those are three distinct groups that have different relations with the robot, though some stay in their circles of fear and others step out of their comfort zones. In order to show the duality of the robot, I split it into its regular friendly mode and its war mode. Also, the circles make the robot a target, both as the target of Hogarth’s friendship and the military’s target for destruction.

The weeks drag on and I keep refining the idea. The poster is gradually becoming a reality. My heart is a beacon of wanton creativity riding on the back of my tired mind, but I need to get it done before I leave for Europe in a few days. I’m working first in Adobe Illustrator, where I lay down the foundation of the image. It’s where I grapple with Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity (or C.R.A.P.) the four basic fundamentals of graphic design, or as designer Saul Bass puts it most simply, “Thinking made visual.”


For my idea, it’s important to make it communicate geometry without total symmetry. It needs to feel industrial, like the body of the robot, and alive like his friendship with Hogarth. Also, by making it a more graphical style than the movie, I will be able to apply my own style, but still have it resemble the characters.

After I draw all the shapes and lines in Illustrator, I switch to Photoshop. Photoshop is where I get to make the shiny shinier, and the rough rougher. It’s where I apply colors, textures, and do my final set up for screen printing. The color palette needs to echo the film. The yellows, reds, grays, and blacks in the right areas and proportions create a sense of urgency, fear, and life. My hope is to make the whole poster communicate the intense stand-off in the film, like everything is happening right then and now. I also add little bits of fun like the Sputnik and the squirrel.


My hope is to make the whole poster communicate the intense stand-off in the film, like everything is happening right then and now.

Eventually I get it done, send off the files, and leave for Europe out of LAX. The Mondo team seemed to like it, but I’m useless at gauging any success so soon after completion. There’s no way of knowing if I have done a good thing or wasted everyone’s time. All I know is that a lot is riding on it for me personally. Many other artists love that movie and their opinions matter to me, but if a design only appeals to those who are familiar with the subject matter, it’s a failure in my mind. At this point, however, it’s too late to do anything now; I’ve truly done all I can.

October 2011

Back on the train, I jolt awake as I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s the ticket-taker who wants to stamp my passport before we arrive in Paris. As I work to shake off the fleeting remnants of my brief nap, I can’t seem to separate my dreams from reality. Did I imagine that text from Justin about how my poster was well received? I pull out my phone for verification, but it’s dead. Trying in vain to find stimulation on this slate grey cylinder of silence, I begin to nod off again.

Some time later, my dreams are interrupted by screeching brakes. Exiting the train I step onto Gare du Nord, whose grandeur and steel opulence would later become my muse for a Hugo poster.

The first thing I do is find an outlet, then fumble through a collection of European power adapters and finally plug in my computer. Exhaustion is still weighing me down, but I have to know about the Iron Giant poster. My computer flicks back to life and I’m bombarded with emails, tweets and Facebook posts, all of them complimentary. As I sift though links to online reviews, pictures from the event and notes of praise from other illustrators, a smile inches its way onto my granite face. The work has paid off. I pack up my gear, unmistakably reenergized. Stumbling out of the station, I correct my stride and vanish into the dusty luster of a golden morning in Paris.