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John Shourt GALACTICA.TV interview
Written by Marcel Damen   
Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Marcel Damen and Mike Egnor caught up with John Shourt, better known for his concept art and model building work on the Battlestar Galactica 1978 series. We talked about how he got into the business, visiting his brothers James and Bill Shourt on the Star Wars set, his work on Battlestar Galactica and what he currently does.

When did you really know when you wanted to start drawing?

I started drawing before I could talk. Then again I didn't start talking until I was around five. Drawing has been a process for me. I pick it up now and again. So I guess I would have to say I still have to hit my potential.

Did you follow any former education in this?

Just some classes in high school and junior college. At the time I was hired for Battlestar Galactica I was seriously thinking of getting into Art History. My painting teacher, Estelle Mortinson, told me if I didn't paint more I might as well become a critic.

Where you supported by your parents in this or did they have anything else in mind for you?

My parents were extremely supportive. My dad wanted to send me to the Art Academy in Washington D.C. He had the connections to do it. I passed.

Who were your examples at that time? Who did you look up to?

Every style caught my eye, from underground comics to fine art. Robert Williams, Ron Cobb, Robert Crumb, Mort Drucker, a lot of the pen and ink guys really influenced me.

Did you try out many different styles before you got to your current present state of style?

Yes. I am still influenced by things I see although I now realize style is like a fingerprint. I can ape other people but it will always be me. This ability to know ones style is important. It's like the truth.

How did you actually role into creating visual art for motion pictures?

I almost worked on Star Wars. My brothers Bill and James Shourt were both working on it. I visited the Valjean facility many times. John Dykstra had seen some of my art work. On one visit he asked if I wanted a job doing storyboards with Joe Johnston. Joe was swamped with work for the climatic dog fight scenes. I told my brother Bill about this. His reply was to finish college. The reason for this reply was that lot of the people working it considered it another 'B' picture. After it was over, what next? Film can be a very gypsy way of life.

When Star Wars became the success it was and John Dykstra made the offer again on Battlestar Galactica I took the job.

You said you came on the show as an assistant to Joe Johnston. Had you seen the work he did on Star Wars?

I visited the Valjean facility many times. I had seen his worked and liked it very much. He has a good hand. He came out of the Long Beach State design department which I was very familiar with. My other brother James Shourt had been there. It was another place I had visited.

James originally had worked with Doug Trumbull on The Andromeda Strain. A lot of the crew there went over to Star Wars. People like Dick Alexander, John Dykstra and Richard Edlund were all working at Trumbull's. To me it felt like it was sort of a "ground 0" where a lot of groundbreaking effects people were working at the time. Star Wars came up, John Dykstra took it on and put the shop together with a lot of guys he'd worked with before.

Can you remember the first thing you were asked to do on Battlestar Galactica?

I did some storyboards of a viper chasing two Cylon craft. It was a Friday and I was very nervous. Joe Johnston preferred to work on a vellum like paper. I tried this, but my hand was so sweaty it just wrinkled up the paper. Joe was such a cool customer he had no problems. At the end of the day I was a wreck. I think Joe could see this and he asked, "Do you want a beer?" I said yes and followed him down to the coffee area. I saw some of the crew standing around drinking beers. Joe opened the fridge and it was full, top to bottom with beer. I thought, "This is going to be some place to work."

How much detail do you get on what you're going to draw and how much is your imagination?

When I came in on Battlestar Galactica, most of the concept art had already been done. They wanted me to come up with some other ideas for some of the extra ships, because they figured they needed a lot of extra ships in the "ragtag fleet".

concept art for a ship on Battlestar Galactica by John Shourt

concept art for a ship on Battlestar Galactica by John Shourt

I also did a lot of time in the model shop. I would take things and piece them together. There were certain main ships that were foreground and they needed some extra that were just filling space. We'd come up with some ideas for those.

When you were in the model shop, were you like a kid in a candy store?

It was great. A lot of stuff that was there, as far as the raw model kits, was left over from Star Wars. Back in those days you could go to a hobby store and buy kits that were crushed or damaged and were no longer sellable. Apogee would buy the kits up and scavenge them for nurnies. We were nurnying things up, Galac-ta-mulch.

Even though some people had gone back to George Lucas at ILM, there were still enough of the original model crew around when I came in. Lorne Peterson and Steve Gawley had gone back to ILM, but people like Jon Erland stayed. Jon wasn't a real model builder, but he helped us with fabrication and things like that. He was an around genius when it came to chemicals and he did a lot of work on the green screens.

You talk about nurnies. Can you explain what "nurnying" is?

Not sure if that is the correct spelling, or, if it has any. I think I first heard of the term from the model makers during Star Wars.

To put it simply nurnying is the application of detail on a model/drawing to break up space and add scale. In the case of models these items are generally scavenged from model kits although some items were from actual industrial model companies. These applications must relate to what they are applied to of course... although model makers have slipped in the occasional object that doesn't. As a joke.

Who else did you work with when working on Battlestar Galactica? You said you learned a lot from working with Dan Goozee and Marty Kline?

Dan Goozee came and brought along Marty Kline. They had both worked at WED some time back if I remember correctly. Joe Johnston left for ILM along with Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren and others.

I was mostly splitting my time between the model shop and the illustration department. I cannot at this time remember any specific things I worked on other than painting on a photo/plate I finished up for Dan.

Can you name some of the other things you were responsible for when working on Battlestar Galactica?

I worked on a few of the ship models. One I had done a concept for involved three film cans (the Livery Ship). You can see it in the opening credits. Ken Swenson did the hard work and I did the details/nurnies. I also did one that looked like a reefer car (refrigeration car), like on a train, patched together.

the Livery Ship on Battlestar Galactica with nurnies by John Shourt

the Livery Ship on Battlestar Galactica with nurnies by John Shourt

I did the lettering and graphics on the ships. One of those was the main ship. David Beasley had done the boiler plating and some nurnies had been attached to it. I worked on the lettering of the removable face plate. I would use what they'd call Letraset, a plastic sheet with lettering on it, and paint it one color, put the letters on and remove it with a piece of tape. They had to use a removable faceplate because they had two different ships and there was only one main mothership model.

nameplate for the battlestar Galactica by John Shourt

nameplate for the battlestar Galactica by John Shourt

We used a xylonite primer, sort of a brown color, and over the top of that there was kind of a grey color. The ships were painted off-white, a kind of grey, because you had all the lights on it and they were shot in front of the different screens.

What was the purpose of the big cylinders on the Livery Ship?

Ken Swenson did the hard part, because I still wasn't up to speed on working on models. He built the armature and put it all together I just did the details. It's like when you're drawing: you don't know what the exact purpose is, but you don't want it to look too far field. You wouldn't put something that looks like an ice cream blender on a rocket ship. It's a lot about scaling and breaking up space.

I heard a rumor that one of the pontoons where the vipers came out on the battlestar Galactica was crooked, so they could only film it from one side?

I never heard that. I think the reason why they shot it from one side, was because Andy Probert did a little miniature painting for the landing bay on one side and that's why they kind of favored one side over the other. Another reason could also be because they only shot it once and they used the stock footage over and over again, so it looked like they favored one side.

Who was actually checking your work? Did you work with John Dykstra?

Grant McCune in the model shop and Marty Kline in the illustration department.

I sat with John a few times one on one to do storyboards.

Did you just work on the pilot movie or did you also stay on to work on the series?

I only worked on the main show, and the one about the ice planet ("Gun on Ice Planet Zero"). If I remember correctly Universal set up their Hartland facility to work on the series and Buck Rogers.

Did you see the shooting of the actual miniatures when they were finished?

Sure. You'd go out to the stages sometimes in case something happened, like the motion control hitting a ship which needed a touch up. It didn't happen a lot. The main ships like the Cylon Raider and the Colonial Viper were made like the ships on Star Wars, with molds. They were expendable and sometimes blown up.

Did you ever visit the other sets and the actors?

No, I never got to do that. The closest I got to set was when we had a wrap party at Universal Studios. They had it on one of the stages where one of the sets was. That was it. I was out on the Valjean facility pretty much the entire time.

Did you later watch the pilot and series on TV? Where you glued to the TV to find some of your work on it?

I'd already seen everything in the dailies, so I kind of knew what was coming up. John Dykstra was always at the dailies to make sure that everything was working. If there are any problems it came up in the dailies as far as the models. When it came on TV it was fun to see the ships I'd worked on. That was about the last time I've seen most of it; when it was on TV back in 1978.

Were you happy with what you saw on screen? Were you happy you were part of it?

I thought it was pretty cool and was happy with it. It was the first thing I ever worked on. I told my friends to watch it. Over time you work on so much, you tend to get a little jaded, but once and a while you do something you're really proud of and this was one those.

Have you stayed in contact with many from Apogee team throughout the years or only got in touch with them recently when the Apogee Facebook group was formed?

I'd stayed in touch with them. My brother Bill Shourt was a co-owner of Apogee with John Dykstra. They were all friends before Star Wars happened, because they had worked at Trumbull's. They've all maintained a long friendship. I wouldn't say I'm on the same level of friendship as my brother is, but I've kept in contact with people from that period.

I actually worked with Marty Kline later, over at Sony Imageworks. When I was there, he was the head of the art department. It was nice to \see him and work with him a bit again.

On our website we have some sketches of Marty Kline did for the oxygen masks for "Gun on Ice Planet Zero".

I still have images of that mask when they were putting it together in the model shop. Yes, Marty did those sketches. I was working with Marty and at the same time I was often down in the model shop. I was doing a lot of model work and was split between the illustration department and the model department.

snowmask for 'The Gun on Ice Planet Zero' on Battlestar Galactica

snowmask for "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero" on Battlestar Galactica

Do you know what else Marty Kline did on the Battlestar Galactica series?

He did storyboards. I also have images of the Ovion costume. I don't know who worked on the costume. He might have done a lot of art work on that. Dan Goozee could also have worked on that. You'll have to ask them.

Marty came from WED, the Disney design company. He was really good at sitting down and actually drafting things we needed. If needed like a table set up for instance, he'd come up with conceptual drawings and he could also actually do the engineering part of it, if we needed it built. He was an all round guy -- very talented.

How about Joe Johnston?

I worked with Joe Johnston and we did storyboards for quite a while. I think he went on to ILM and that's when Dan Goozee came on board and brought Marty with him. A lot of times John Dykstra would call me down to his office and talk about storyboards that needed to be done. I can't remember Joe sitting over the top of me saying; "Do this, do that." He would just say: "John needs this." and I would do it.

How was John Dykstra to work for?

He was great. He had a lot of energy, he still has. He gets into a project and has a very positive attitude about it. That influenced me. If you get on a project and you take a more positive approach to it and that helps you get through the job. That's what I remember about John -- very positive and a lot of energy.

During Star Wars, in my opinion, he was probably the most upbeat about the project, of anybody working on it. He thought it was going to be a great movie while a lot of the people there thought it would be another ‘B' film or didn't know what it was going to be; not until they first started seeing the footage from Tunisia. I remember when my brother came back and had seen the footage from Tunisia. He suddenly thought it was pretty amazing and something really cool.

John Dykstra is simply really good at what he does and always full of positive energy. I've worked with other supervisors and some kind of slugged their way through the job; to them it was just another paycheck.

We know the show was always fighting the budget and had a tight schedule. I wondered if this affected the things you guys were working on?

Not that I noticed. If you have a person on top who gives, in my opinion, a positive spin on things it helps a lot. John was more like: "Let's get the job done today and then let's do some dirt bike riding on the weekend." He was one of the regular guys. I remember one time they were shooting some commercial after Battlestar Galactica and they needed a trench dug. John rolled up his sleeves and dug the trench. That's the kind of guy John is.

His really positive attitude stood out. The special effects business in the late 70s is not what it is now. There weren't a lot of effects shops and most studios had their own people on board that did the effects. There weren't a lot of outside people. It was the start of the boutiques, the outside the studio system effects shops. A lot of people were just happy to have a paycheck for building these models, the camera work, etc.

I never knew anything about the budget on Battlestar Galactica, but to me everything looked above board in a positive way.

You went on to work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture?

I think Apogee had done a couple of the episodes. Trumbull was doing the Star Trek movie and passed on some work to Apogee, so the two facilities were working on it.

How was it different from working on Battlestar Galactica? What did you specifically do on Star Trek: The Motion Picture?

It was a bigger budget. I again was splitting my duties between the illustration department and the model shop. I did some storyboards, but not very many. The best thing about that was that I got to work with Sid Mead. He did the paintings for V'ger. Sid's a great guy to meet and a phenomenal painter. I learned a lot just by watching him. I translated a lot of his concepts to the drawings they used to make the big model of V'ger. A lot of surface details were done in the model shop, again breaking up space and parting scale. The model was build on a huge table. It wasn't a complete ship, but more like a conglomerate of parts where the camera could go down on.

You later also worked on some really big Hollywood blockbusters like Starship Troopers, Inspector Gadget and Cast away?

I made the transition into digital in 1995. The first thing in digital I worked on was The Ghost in the Darkness. My friend John Nelson was a supervisor there and he got me a job doing rotoscope. I was going from doing rotoscope on the camera into doing it in the computer. A lot of what I did on Starship Troopers was again matte work and painting, not matte painting, but something they call "dust busting"...and a lot of wire removal.

The most noticeable things I did was the matte work on the scenes when they're on the command deck and they're looking out of the window. They had budgeted those scenes for several people, but I told them I could do them by myself. I got to do all those scenes. That was probably one of the best work experiences I had in the whole movie business, as far as doing digital. Digital is a lot faster paced than when you do things on the camera.

For Sony I worked on pretty much everything they did from 1995 until 2000. I worked on films like Godzilla, Anaconda, Hollow Man, Cast Away, etc. It was an interesting experience, coming from the old school way of making effects, now doing them digitally. They do really keep you compartmentalized though and you only work in certain sections. I was in the paint-rotoscope department for quite a while there.

Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers

Looking back on your career is Starship Troopers the one you're most proud of working on?

They left me alone on that one basically. I got that reputation with my supervisors where they said: "Give it to Shourt, he can do it.", and they knew I would get the work done. I'd have to say that working at Apogee was more interesting because it was more like a clubhouse. I've never read George Lucas' book, but I heard during Star Wars John Dykstra ran a very happy, but loose place. Gary Kurtz did get that concept. "No animals were hurt in the production." I think it came out well and it was a good movie.

I could go anywhere on Apogee, though I never worked on the stage with the cameras, it was pretty free and easy. As far as the digital part, Starship Troopers was a neat movie. Director Paul Verhoeven really knows what he's doing, no matter what other people might say about him.

How was it to work on Cast Away?

It was again more paint work and "dust busting". In the old days when they had a print with dust on it, they sent it in for a rewash. Now they have a person like me, sitting at a monitor, taking all the dirt bits out of it digitally. It's like wire removal, except you take dirt out of it.

At Sony Pictures Imageworks that had one of the first HD monitors, two actually, which were phenomenal. You could see everything. Everything that went out of there was cleaner than you'd ever expect to see in a film theatre.

Did you watch the new Battlestar Galactica series and what did you think of it?

I caught a little bit of it and I thought it was pretty interesting. They updated it nicely and there's more storyline going on there. You can't compare it with the original series. It was a different day and age.

How does CGI changed things from doing old bluescreens?

Digital is much better now, simply because computers are faster. There are things you can get away with more when you're doing old bluescreen though. But since digital is now so far advanced, I don't think I would want to go back to bluescreen. Film as a medium is going away, which is a shame, since there was a certain beauty to that. Digital is just another medium, it can be abused, but it can also be really beautiful.

Some supervisors would say: "Ah we can just paint that out." On Inspector Gadget we had a grip sitting in the shot and I had to paint the grip out! I heard on Contact there was a grip truck in the picture and Ken Ralston apparently said "You can't do that", but it wasn't in the budget to paint that truck out. Things are filmed more sloppy, since they think you can correct anything with this digital stuff. When you shoot things on stage with bluescreen, you only get one chance to shoot it. There wasn't digital paint back then, it took an entire department to take it out. You were much more careful with what you were doing on film.

Are there people you've enjoyed working the most with, that stand out I  your mind?

They people I mentioned earlier. I enjoyed working with John Dykstra. The people I really had a problem with are very miniscule. Most people I've run into had their stuff together. One really interesting project I worked on was the movie Cool World. Ralph Bakshi was a very interesting character to work with and this movie really stands out in my mind. I had to do rotoscope and they didn't have enough room in the facility to do it, so they leased a gun shop. It was two blocks away from the studio in Burbank, where they did all the animation. It still had the name of the gunshop on the outside, though it was empty inside. They set me up with the equipment so I could do rotoscope. It was summer time, it was hot, there was no air-conditioning and here I was driving up to this ex gun shop every day, doing rotoscope all by myself. It was definitely an interesting experience.

Another one worth mentioning is John Nelson, a close friend of mine. I worked with him a couple of times. Pat McClung. Scott Anderson was, unlike you might hear anywhere else, for me great to work with. All of these people are still working. John got the Academy Award for Gladiator. I thought it was long overdue.

What are doing currently?

My last day on the job was on Cast Away. I was laid off in 2000. I took some time off to take care of my parents and I kind of fell off of it. I had some offers from ILM, but money wasn't that good and I had to move all the way up to the bay area, not knowing how long I'd be working for them. I kind of gave up on it then. They want the work done faster and faster. A lot of the younger people now work overtime without pay. It gives the producer a false idea how much the shot costs.

I've moved out to New Mexico and haven't worked at all until the economy went down. I now have a job in security at a tribal casino. I'm still looking at monitors, so I've kind of come full circle.

Any interesting hobbies?

I still do my art work and I do music. I've done a soundtrack for a small production called The Secret of Easter Island. I still do my hand in computer graphics, but nothing for pay. It's changing so much and so fast, it's not an easy thing to keep up with.

Thanks for taking the time to do this interview.

No problem. It was a blast to do.

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