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The Brothers Hildebrandt

From Lord of the Rings to Star Wars and beyond, the twins who redefined fantasy imagery for a whole generation…

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GREG & TIM HILDEBRANDT

Greg and Tim Hildebrandt began their careers in 1959, and became internationally known for the original Star Wars movie poster. They have since worked for Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Batfilms and Lucas Films.

www.brothershildebrandt.com

On the 11 June 2006, one of the true greats of the fantasy art world passed away, aged 67, from complications due to diabetes. He was Tim Hildebrandt, and together with his twin brother Greg, he created some of the best-known and best-loved art in the genre.

The Brothers Hildebrandt first shot to fame with their illustrations for the 1976 Ballantine calendar of Lord of the Rings, as well as their iconic poster for the original Star Wars. But even by then, they had produced more than 20 years’ worth of illustrations for children’s books, stop motion animation, and puppet animation.


Where it all started

The twins’ fascination with art began, as far as Greg can tell, around the age of two. “We could both remember sitting and eating crayons,” he says. “I think the idea was to decide if colours tasted different…”

In those pre-teen years, their major artistic influence was, of course, comic books: “That was the first stuff that we saw – coming in the front door were the daily and Sunday papers. It was the golden era for comics.”

Comic beginnings

The twins began studying and copying these comics, with the growing realisation that this was what they were born to do. And then out of the blue came Disney.

“When we first saw Disney’s Pinocchio, we were about six or seven years old, and it was literally the first movie we saw on a big screen. It was like it happened yesterday, and Tim and I were totally blown away. From then on, that was it – whatever it was on that screen, we wanted to do it. The main obsession was to be Disney animators; it was the single most motivating force of our childhood.”

From the very start, the brothers worked as a team, inspiring and challenging each other to try new techniques or discover how something worked – what Greg calls a “push me-pull you thing.” But with no formal art training, they were dismayed to find that a career at Disney was unlikely. Undaunted, stints at the Jam Handy Organisation followed, producing industrial and commercial films which mixed live action with animation in hugely innovative and award-winning ways.

Catholic tendencies
Perhaps oddly, the next move was working for catholic bishop (and erstwhile TV star) Fulton J Sheen, again producing some innovative documentaries but this time with the emphasis on social awareness. This was a real eye-opener for “two kids from the east side of Detroit”.

In 1969, the brothers set up as commercial illustrators for children’s books, and for the next six years would produce a vast output of work. “We had a system by this time; we could just crank it out,” Greg explains. “There’s so much work that Tim did in these kids’ books that is unknown. It probably had a subconscious influence on their readers. He was really incredible at that, he loved doing it and did a fantastic job.” Ironically, some of these once-obscure books are now changing hands for impressive sums of money.

But it was the Tolkien calendars that changed everything, and that was almost by accident. Publishers Ballantine Books had appealed on the back of a calendar for artists to illustrate a Lord of the Rings edition.

The one ring

“And yet,” says Greg, “when we got [to the publishers], the only responses they’d had were from fan artists – there were no professionals. Imagine if you did that today…! Fantasy art was still this kind of kitsch sub-genre, people looked down their noses at it. People were reading it secretly, and artists were the same – they disdained this genre.”

The illustrations were huge, six feet wide canvases, created by one brother starting at either end and working towards the middle, where their creations would meet. Somewhat to the Hildebrandts’ surprise, they were an instant hit, and the pair were bemused to suddenly find themselves receiving fan letters.

Fame beckons

“When this happened we just weren’t really getting it. I was always in awe of this stuff and I still am – I’m a fanboy myself. When you start going to conventions and see people lining up to meet you, that’s a thrill. So we did three of them overall… the 1978 edition sold over a million.”

Their new-found fame led to them being commissioned for the poster for a low-budget sci-fi film called Star Wars (see A New Hope), and that sealed the deal. The brothers Hildebrandt were officially in demand, and from then to the present day, they worked almost continuously on a bewildering number of projects: film posters, greeting cards, collectable card games, Marvel and DC Comics, ads, Dungeons & Dragons, more calendars, more Star Wars books, more of everything…

“I don’t know if either of us would have made it if we weren’t twins,” muses Greg. “I’m amazed by any artist as an individual who manages to complete anything. In the early days we used to have these constant freak-outs, throw it all in a corner and just scream ‘I quit’ and go rampaging off. Then the other one would say, ‘well, unless you get back in here, I’m quitting too’ – and that would be it.”

Now, Greg says he has no plans to slow down, but says he’s unlikely to switch to digital production after all this time. Tim’s favoured medium was watercolour – “He was a master at that” – and the pair dabbled briefly with oils, until Greg accidentally erased Gandalf’s face with his hand because the paint still hadn’t dried. That was the last stroke, in many senses.

Digital Dilemma

“I like the physical aspect of real paint,” Greg explains. “When my mind goes to digital, it’s like, ‘where is it?’ I don’t know how to turn on a computer – and I mean that literally. But I’m blown away with digital stuff, it’s incredible what people do with it.”

For Greg and Tim, art had always been a calling, not a vocation. “There was never a question of doing anything else. We’ve always said art chose us, we didn’t choose it. We were never interested in anything else.

“And I know Tim’s with me. He’ll always be with me.”

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