On Visual Reference, The Movie Meatballs, and Pinterest

I recently got a commission to illustrate a six-page memoir comic about going to see The Empire Strikes Back on opening day. Empire was released in the summer of 1980 and so one thing I had to take care of before I got to actually drawing the story was getting visual reference for the story. Specifically–since the author of the story and the other characters were kids in 1980–I needed reference for children’s clothes from that era.

As  a bit of background, I’ll note that I’m not as much a stickler for historical accuracy as some folks. Although I’ve done several books that take place in the 1920s, I have a similar philosophy to that of Eddie Campbell when it comes to historical details. I can’t recall where I read it, but I remember an interview with him where he said basically: No, I’m not concerned with tracking down historically accurate reference for light fixtures and whatnot–I just want to convincingly evoke the feel of a particular era. I adopted a similar approach with both Midnight Sun and Amelia Earhart. Obviously I didn’t want there to be glaring anachronisms, but I’m generally not concerned with after-the-fact nitpicking from history buffs.

One area, though, that I do feel really merits some research is clothing–especially so when doing a story like the one I’m currently working on where it has to read as a particular era that’s (relatively) close to the current time. The differences in clothing (and hair) styles will be fairly subtle, so if you want them to be really evocative of their era, you need to nail the little details that set them apart from clothes now.

You might think that in the internet era finding visual reference would be trivial, but it’s easier for some things than others. It’s quite easy to turn up reference for specific items with a Google Image Search (“members only jacket“) but you of course have to know exactly what it is you’re searching for first. Image searches are particularly problematic for turning up what you really need: photographs of large groups of everyday people from a certain era.  A search for “80s crowd” for example yields a few interesting things, but it tends to turn up a lot of random stuff as well–a motorcycle, some VHS cases, etc.

If you follow my blog, you know I do a lot of sketchbook drawings from magazines–and you’d think that fashion magazines might be a good source of clothing reference. Here’s the problem with that, though:

Old Sears catalogs and the like can be helpful for getting a look and feel for early 20th century clothing, but the clothing in modern-era fashion magazines frequently has little resemblance to what regular folks are actually wearing on the street.

One resource that I did find pretty helpful was the much-derided social “pinning” site Pinterest. Although Pinterest isn’t really useful for turning up either particular items or the illusive crowd pictures, it was really great at instantly generating a pretty solid mood board.  A search for boards with the term “1980” turns up a ton of stuff like this (click through to the actual Pinterest results):

While not much use for particular item searches, you can glean a lot of useful information from the Pinterest results–things like general color schemes and hair styles, and also tons and tons of things to use as props/decorations in interiors.

Ultimately, I think the best way to turn up good reference for everyday people wearing everyday clothes is to just study a film released around that period. Wikipedia has a handy list of films listed by year of release. In my case, I specifically needed a film with kids in it, so I put out a call on Twitter and folks suggested a number of good possibilities such as E.T., Meatballs, and one other Disney film that I can’t remember now. Luckily the local used DVD joint had a copy of Meatballs. Also lucky: the copy they had was an older pressing. It’s 100% galling, but some newer discs have DRM on them that won’t allow you to take screen captures of the paused film.

So, here are a couple of pages of super-quick sketches of what folks are wearing in Meatballs. I’m making quick notes as well about things I’m likely to have forgotten by the time I sit down to draw.

I actually wound up using the general look and hairstyle of one of the main characters from Meatballs for the main character in the story:

Finally, here’s a sample panel showing the character and some clothing:

I’d love to hear about your reference tips and tricks!


  1. Edward Siemienkowicz says:

    Good article on research, and the philosophy of how far to take your reference. My long-form comic takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where anything goes, but it also flashes back to 1982 and onward.

    I may be a bit older than you, as I was there in the theater when Empire came out, so I do remember the hairstyles of my peers. For better and for worse, believe me. Still, we move on, so even I need a refresher. A decade of styles as diverse as the 80s means, to me, that you can’t have a guy at a Tubes concert dressed like MC Hammer. Don’t cross the streams, do your homework.

    I’ll check out Pinterest, but I also relay on movies, and TV shows from Hulu. My Hulu screen cap reference library grows every time I see a hairstyle, or unusual or distinctive outfit of that time. I am a member of several groups on Flickr related to this, as well. As for getting DVD caps, I suggest trying VLC – a player of many medias. When on the Mac I use that to watch all my movies. It even has speed control! Here’s the links to some of the stuff I mentioned, and keep up the good work!

    VLC: http://www.videolan.org/vlc/download-windows.html

    Flickr: (might not be SFW all the time) http://www.flickr.com/groups/aswewas/

    Chrome and Dust: (for good measure :P ) http://chromeanddust.com

  2. Ben says:

    @Edward – Thanks for the comment. I’m actually only a few years younger than the guy who wrote the story, so I was there for the opening of Empire (although I was nine, not twelve). Great suggestion w/ VLC. I have that already but have been using it just to listen to music.

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