The Illustrated Man
By Paul Rogers
It would be easy to assume that Pablo Ferro spends his days looking back with pride and nostalgia over his five-decade career as a designer of iconic film titles, trailer campaigns and commercials. But lately it seems that other people are more interested in examining Ferro’s enviably full life as an animator, graphic designer and counterculture cult hero. The man himself, now 76, seems much more focused on his work in the here and now.
Respect for Ferro is such that, since 2005, director Richard Goldgewicht and producer Jeremy Goldscheider have been working on a documentary, titled PABLO, that tells his story through a combination of animation and outpourings of admiration from celebrity talking heads like Andy Garcia and Anjelica Huston. The film, which is narrated by Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges, should finally see the light of day early next year.
All this seemed unlikely when the teenage Ferro arrived barefoot in New York from pre-revolutionary Cuba shortly after World War II. Having taught himself animation from a book by renowned Disney/MGM animator Preston Blair, Ferro began freelancing in the industry in the mid-1950s. Mentored by Disney animator Bill Tytla, and working alongside the likes of future Marvel Comics editor Stan Lee, by the early ’60s he had his own animation company, Pablo Ferro Films.
Though Ferro remains perhaps best-known for the remarkable opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove and is widely credited as a significant influence on the pop-culture “look” of the 1960s, his work has in fact continued to grace screens ever since. As well as his astonishing split-screen sequences on the 1968 Steve McQueen/Faye Dunaway classic The Thomas Crown Affair, Ferro has also worked on movies including Harold and Maude (1971), Beetlejuice (1988), Good Will Hunting (1997); 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite; and this year’s Larry Crowne. He was also the recipient of an American Institute of Graphic Arts medal in 2009.
“It surprised me when I created the lettering for Strangelove . . . I didn’t think everybody would like it, until I saw all the imitators of that lettering—even now,” mulls Ferro, who currently lives in the garage behind his son’s Los Angeles home. “I keep saying I’ve got to do something that will last—and then realizing I did it already!”
Ferro’s penchant for creating art from a crowded cacophony of information seemed to sense the onset of the Internet age and was a both a precursor of and an influence on the ADHD aesthetic of the MTV generation. His ability to convey sometimes complex messages in seconds also made his work a natural fit for TV commercials, which were themselves becoming art forms by the late 1950s. He has even animatd the first color NBC Peacock and the Burlington Mills “stitching” commercials.
“The agencies, they were great in [the 1960s]. They would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, here’s a new project; we’re making a new commercial’—and they would leave me alone to come up with an idea,” Ferro recalls. “That’s why I have all these commercials that are very unique . . . Different kinds of animation; different kinds of graphics put together.”
As for his feelings about having a full-length documentary devoted to him, the ever-modest Ferro is lightheartedly coy.
“I’ll tell you after I see it!”