Sunday, June 28, 2009

Cha-Ka vs. Sleestak

I had this illustration in mind for a long time, and I moved it to the front of the line so I could finish it before the new Land of the Lost movie came out and crapped all over my memories of the 1970s TV show.

It was inspired by the fact that the Sleestaks (the big lizard men on the TV show) were portrayed by UCLA basketball players, including a young Bill Laimbeer before he went on to the NBA! The minute I read that, this image popped into my head.

I loved Land of the Lost when I was a kid. It was one of my favorite Saturday morning shows. If you're too young to remember, it was about a father and his two kids who stumble into a strange, self-contained parallel world where dinosaurs still exist, along with an ancient lizard-men civilization and a less dangerous primitive ape-men tribe.

The writing on the TV series was far above average for a kid's show, and featured scripts by actual sci-fi writers, including David Gerrold, Larry Niven, Norman Spinrad, Ben Bova and even Walter Koenig (Star Trek's Chekov!).

It was a pretty elaborate show for Saturday morning TV, with fairly high production values, including huge jungle sets complete with caves and pools. It irks me when I hear people badmouth the show's special effects. Naturaly it looks cheesy when judged against today's standards, it's over 30 years old! But back in the 1970s it was quite advanced, especially for a Saturday morning program. I don't think any kid's show had ever attempted stop motion animation on a weekly basis before that time. I will admit that the scripts were sometimes a bit too ambitious for their limited budget though.

People also tend to dismiss LOTL as just another kiddie show. It was anything but! It had some very grown-up themes for a Saturday morning show. This wasn't a friendly jungle; the Marshall's world was a dangerous place. They were constantly in danger of being eaten alive by dinosaurs, captured by lizard men or dissected by aliens. They were also constantly foraging for food-- if they didn't find anything, then they didn't eat. Pretty serious stuff for a kid's show.

Many scenes stick in my mind to this day. In one episode, Will and Holly (the two Marshall children) are tied up in a pit in the Lost City, awaiting their sacrifice to the Sleestak "god" (some sort of unseen dinosaur, or worse). As their hopes for rescue begin to fade, Holly asks Will if he ever prays. "Sometimes," he admits. "Does it work?" she asks. "Sometimes," he says. That threw my 14 year old brain for a loop! You'd never get away with that on a kid's show today!

In another episode, Holly meets a mysterious shimmering woman who tells her how to rescue her family from some sort of danger. Eventually she finds out that the woman is in fact her adult self, who came from the future to help. As Future Holly leaves, she says, "Cherish your father and brother, Holly, because they won't always be around!" Yikes! Talk about ominous and unsettling!

The producers even hired a linguist to come up with a language for the Pakuni (Cha-Ka's people). They weren't just saying "Ooga booga," they were speaking actual words and phrases. You can see some of the Pakuni language here.

So as a big fan of the TV series, I was understandably excited when I heard there was going to be a LOTL movie. For years I've wished that someone would film a remake with a proper budget. Naturally, Hollywood jettisoned everything that made the original series special, and are taking the low road, turning it into a lowbrow "comedy." Typical.

Drawn in Photoshop on the graphic tablet.
Here are a couple of sketches I did for this drawing. This one fought me every step of the way. Cha-Ka (that's the official spelling) was pretty easy to draw, but I could not for the life of me get the pose of the Sleestak right. I went through dozens of sketches before I found one I could live with.

Part of the problem was that I don't think I've ever drawn a Sleestak before, and when I drew him from reference photos he kept coming out too "realistic" as it were, and didn't match the more cartoony Cha-Ka. So I had to learn to draw a Sleestak the normal way and then figure out how to "cartoon him up."

Then it wasn't enough to just draw a cartoony Sleestak, he had to look like he was actually guarding Cha-Ka and blocking his shot. So getting the pose right took a lot of effort too.

One more thing: it probably looks like a mistake, but it's not-- Cha-Ka's ears really were way above his eyes like that on the show!

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