With his dynamic compositions, vibrant character design and ’80s-nostalgia inducing style, 46-year-old movie poster maestro Paul Shipper is the closest thing we have to a modern-day Drew Struzan. Shipper does, after all, does cite Struzan’s gloriously airbrushed one-sheets of the ’70s and ’80s as his biggest inspiration.
That much should be evident from the Mancunian artist’s hugely impressive offerings in this week’s Poster Live Auction, including some fantastic pieces he’s created for Star Wars, The Karate Kid, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones, as well as some of his commissions for Empire, the world’s biggest movie magazine.
Here Shipper chats with Dan Jolin (a fellow Empire contributing editor, full disclosure!) about his life in illustration and his mission to bring back the non-photographic movie poster.
Lot #318 – ROBOCOP (1987) – Signed, Titled and Hand-Annotated Artist Proof Print by Paul Shipper, 2019
What are you working on right now? Can you say?
I can’t say exactly, because they’re not out yet, but I’ve just done another book cover, a movie poster for a big movie that’s going to be on a streaming platform, and I’ve done a TV show and a couple of smaller movies, one of which is going to be theatrical. I’ve just finished five jobs in four days!
Would you say you work quickly, then?
I do work pretty fast – I can illustrate a movie poster in a day, for example. But that’s when you know it’s laid out right and everyone’s happy with it. You can just get stuck in without questioning anything. Whereas when you’re starting from scratch, it takes a lot of effort and time to kind of conjure all the bits together and make it look like something that makes sense. That’s the time-consuming part for me, the storytelling part. Then the other part is just the aesthetic of trying to make it look a certain way – painting it and colouring it and making it look cohesive.
Lot #107 – GHOSTBUSTERS (1984), GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (2021) – Signed, Titled and Hand-Annotated Artist Proof Print by Paul Shipper, 2021
Tell me about how you started out.
Well, it’s taken me about 20 years to become an overnight success! I’ve been drawing and painting since school, really, and when I was at college I’d do occasional jobs; anyone I knew who needed illustrations or drawings would usually ask me. Like, the wife of one of my university lecturers was an interior designer and she needed an artist to help do Michelangelo-style stuff on the walls and ceilings of these extravagant houses. So I did that in the summers – painting cherubs and stuff!
Lot #427 – THE THING (1982) – Signed, Titled and Hand-Annotated Artist Proof Print by Paul Shipper, 2021
What sparked your passion for classic movie posters?
I’ve always been interested in movie posters. From the age of 12, probably even before that, I’d put my name down for certain posters in the video shops and start populating my bedroom with them. Things like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Adventures in Babysitting. But my dad would always say, “painting movie posters isn’t a proper job,” so I never really thought I could do it until I noticed a signature that was on a few of the posters. It said “Drew”. So I spent a lot of time going to film fairs and collecting posters – mostly Drew Struzan posters – and then taking them home and studying them with a magnifying glass as best as I could, because it was the closest thing you can get to the original art.
How exactly did you study them?
I’d try and figure out what techniques were used to make a certain thing, and why these pieces of paper affected me so much. Why they made me feel so good.
Why did Drew Struzan’s art make you feel so good?
It’s hard to quantify. It seems to come from a very pure place. It’s not trying to be clever. It’s not trying to condescend to anybody. It’s easy to understand and it’s non-threatening, generally. It’s something that’s accessible at a glance. [Fellow movie poster artist] James Goodrich once said to me, “When you look at Drew’s work, it’s like a miracle that it even exists.” And it is. He does definitely have something unique when it comes to his choices.
Lot #418 – STEVEN SPIELBERG – Signed, Titled and Hand-Annotated Artist Proof Print by Paul Shipper, 2018
But by the time you were graduating university in the ’90s, posters like Drew’s weren’t being commissioned anymore.
Yes, my lecturers at university didn’t like what I was trying to do. Even though it was an illustration course, they were more interested in fine art. Stuff you’d have to read an essay first to understand. Whereas what I always try to do is make something you can instantly figure out. You instantly know who the hero is, who the villain is, if you wanted to see it or not. I’d say to them, “I want to be a movie poster artist,” and they’d say, “No one does that anymore.” Well, I didn’t care. I still felt like it was something I had to go for, even though it was all Photoshop and everything else now.
Have you ever met Drew?
I have! After university I went on a trip around the West Coast of America, and I had Drew’s contact details, including his fax number, in an old book one of my art teachers once gave me. So I faxed Drew and asked if my friend and I could meet him while we were in LA, and he wrote back saying “Sounds great.” So we used an airport shuttle to get from LA to Pasadena, where he lived – which was a three-hour journey of stopping at these random people’s houses – and we knocked on his door and hung out with him for the whole day. It was amazing. He was very complimentary about my portfolio. And we’ve stayed in touch over the years since.
What advice did he give you?
He said to keep knocking until the door is opened to you, if you believe in this cause. And I kept that with me: “Yeah, I’m not going to give up.” So when the Internet started becoming a thing, I’d post stuff on Indiana Jones fan sites and get a nice response; at this point I wasn’t even working digitally, it was all hand-painted stuff. And Penguin Books saw my artwork and got in touch. GQ magazine also got in touch and requested some illustrations. And before I knew it, things started happening.
Lot #386 – STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) – Signed and Hand-Annotated Official Sideshow Collectable Artist Proof Print by Paul Shipper, 2018
Has Drew given you much feedback on your career thus far?
Drew’s not said it to me, because he won’t, but I think he might secretly be proud that he’s influenced me, and I’ve actually gone on to do something like this and keep what he did alive. I never wanted to see this style of illustration disappear. I wanted it to stay alive somehow. It became a little mission of mine to keep it in the public eye. And now there’s been quite an explosion. Everyone seems to want to be a movie poster artist now!
Lot #439 – THE HEROES (2020) – Signed, Titled and Hand-Annotated Artist Proof Print by Paul Shipper, 2020
Has the Mondo-driven phenomenon of alternative posters helped you at all?
The alternative movie poster is cool because it gives different perspectives on a particular movie. But I realised I wanted to do official art, and work with people on things before they come out. The exciting part for me is working with the studios or agencies to produce the initial art for new movies. Because that was always the thing that excited me growing up. Although, I still do the occasional alternative movie poster. For example, I just did Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for Arrow. Revisiting old movies like that is a joy.
Is it fair to call you the new Drew Struzan?
Some people say I’m the heir apparent to Drew Struzan. I don’t believe that I am, but the nice thing is, people see there is part of what I’m doing that is a tribute to what came before. Yet if you put my work next to Drew’s there’s no comparison, really. There’s an essence. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Lot #110 – THE GODFATHER (1972) – Signed, Titled and Hand-Annotated Artist Proof Print by Paul Shipper, 2022
How does it feel to see your artwork in the Propstore auction alongside such classic images as Roger Kastel’s Empire Strikes Back poster?
It’s quite incredible. The one that really got me was the art of Tom Chantrell, because he did one of my favourite Star Wars posters of all time, and not long ago I learned that he’s from Manchester as well! It’s great to be a fellow Mancunian movie poster artist in an international auction. I get goosebumpy thinking about that. A lot of my stuff in the auction is from my personal studio proof collection, so they’re not actually posters that have been in cinema lobbies or anything, they’re just part of my work regime. When I create something, it’s done digitally, but I’ll print it out and I’ll look at it physically, because I want to see something fairly big, and sometimes I’ll make notes on it. It’s just for my eyes, usually. So the fact that they’re in this auction is a unique thing. It’s a great honour!
What is your personal favourite item among your collection in this auction?
There’s a couple of original sketches that I did for a charity. It was a box set of cards, and it was Star Wars-related, so I did Alec Guinness and the Ewan McGregor Obi-Wan from the new show. That’s something I’m trying to go back to a little bit: doing more physical rather than digital work.
Lot #416 – OBI-WAN KENOBI (T.V. SERIES, 2022) – Two Original Sketches with Signed, Titled and Hand-Annotated Artist Proof Print by Paul Shipper, 2022
There’s quite a few pieces in the auction from your Empire magazine work, too.
Yes, the Empire work that I’ve done is as important to me as the movie posters, really. The same amount of effort and detail goes into them. I was really happy with how the “Greatest Movie Heroes” cover came out. It’s such a collection of heroes!
A few years ago, you became a contributing editor at Empire magazine. How did that happen?
I started reading Empire as soon as it came out, in 1989. And I’ve collected nearly every issue. I’ve got stacks of them, which I’ve carried around the world with me! When I moved to New Zealand, where I lived for six years, I took all my Empire collection with me. It cost me a fortune! I used to think one day, maybe I could do a cover for Empire. Then I just happened to bump into the guys at a Star Wars Celebration in London, and within a year there was a potential project they wanted to do. Then to be made a contributing editor… It’s like winning an award!
Finally, looking back on all your work to date, what are you most proud of?
Oh there have been a few moments where I’ve pinched myself. Such as getting to work on franchises I grew up with, like the new Star Wars movies. To do movie posters for The Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker was incredible. Working on actual movie posters is the one thing I always wanted to do, and even now when I see one of my posters in a cinema or on a billboard, it’s like, “Wow. I actually did it!”
Lot #409 – STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019) – Two Signed, Titled and Hand-Annotated Artist Proof Prints by Paul Shipper, 2019 and 2020
Find out more about the amazing selection of content and more in our Poster Live Auction on September 15, 2022 and how you can view the full catalogue and more now, at propstore.com/posterauction