Illustrating everything that happens in an action adventure movie like Star Trek on one page is like playing Tetris, according to artist Andrew DeGraff, who has mapped the movement of characters through the imaginary worlds of around 40 movies.
“There’s a lot of time trying to make sure everything is going to work out perfectly,” he says. “And it never does.”
DeGraff, a professional illustrator and artist, says an assignment to make a map for a travel feature got him thinking about mapping other things. He had the urge to “build little worlds” as he puts it, and he thought it would be fun to take something nonlinear like a movie and try to string it together into a shape that made sense.
He first tried his hand at a map of the underground maze in The Goonies and soon moved on to other movies that intrigued him as a kid and that held their appeal as he got older. The first full movie map he did was Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. A child of the 80s, he loves the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, and has mapped them all at least once. He even created a single giant map of the first six Star Wars episodes.
He describes the films he chooses as “movies that felt too big for my brain to hold onto all at once.” Now he’s collected them into a big illustrated book called Cinemaps: An Atlas of 35 Great Movies.
Making geographical sense of movies can be challenging and usually means watching each one between 10 and 30 times. DeGraff starts by writing down where all the main characters go and connecting all the locations and scenes together with lines and arrows (above, right). The key is making sure every physical place in the movie is accounted for and all the characters get to where they’re supposed to be, he says. Next DeGraff sketches where all the main locations will go on the map (above, left), which often requires several failed attempts before he settles on a layout.
Once he’s confident he’s got all the important elements under control, he’s ready to paint, a process that can take 200 hours or more depending on the details. DeGraff estimates he spent at least 1,000 hours painting the Lord of the Rings trilogy on one big map.
Part of reason it’s so time-consuming is his choice of an opaque watercolor paint called gouache. Once it goes on the paper, it won’t come off so there’s no room for error. Just painting one tightly packed set of long, straight, parallel lines — like when the entire crew of the Enterprise travels somewhere together — can take five or six hours.
Some of the movie maps have presented unique challenges. For example, the time travel in Back to the Future was tricky, says DeGraff. He ended up making a map of 1985 above a map of 1955, and characters’ tracks drop down into the past and then shoot back up again. For the time travel in Star Trek, he used wormholes that send the characters off the page to reenter the story on another part of the map in the style of old Pacman arcade games (above).
The Wizard of Oz was another tough one because the geography in that movie is largely unexplained and completely disjointed. “The way the characters move in and out of scenes has no basis in reality almost,” DeGraff says. “Which makes a wonderfully impressionistic movie to map, but it also makes it incredibly strange.”
Despite the amount of work that each of the maps requires, DeGraff loves making them and already has his eye on the next challenge. He’s had a couple requests to do Inception, a mind-bending challenge given its reality-warping sets and movement through layered dreams. Also on his radar: Blade Runner, and a very tall, thin map for Die Hard, which takes place entirely in a skyscraper.