In 2013, Roger Dean filed a lawsuit against James Cameron to the tune of 50 million dollars in damages against him after, allegedly, Mr. Cameron stole visual concepts wholesale from Dean’s classic work for use in his 2009 film Avatar. Comparisons have been put online comparing some of Dean’s work from the last 40 years next to stills from the five year old film and the similarities are extremely clear. The archways of stones that form the centerpiece altar of life (or something) as well as the tree-topped floating islands of Unobtanium (ugh) are pretty much cribbed directly from Dean.
It is no wonder that Cameron had his eyes set on this particular illustrator/designer, despite the fact that he isn’t particularly well known. Although his name may not be common knowledge, his work has been floating around record shops, music venues, and the sides of smoke-filled vans since the late 60s. Roger Dean is a rather prolific album art illustrator, creating the spacious, fantastic imagery found on every cover of the seminal progressive rock band Yes’s album covers since their essential Fragile in 1971. He has also done reoccurring collaborations with other classic rock bands such as Asia, Budgie, Greenslade, and Osibisa. Even if you weren’t interested in design and illustration as its own art form, if you listened to progressive rock in the last thirty years, you have encountered Dean’s work.
While there are many similarities that can be drawn, and should be, between Avatar and Dean’s portfolio, there is one important distinction between the two created worlds that is important in understanding Dean and his success in album art: the appreciation for the world as architecture and space. There is a very clear sense of openness in much of Dean’s work, as if the landscapes he creates are open templates for beings to populate, rather than fully lived in spaces. There is the occasional animal, creature, or human existing in his fantasy spaces, but the characters always feel like travelers encountering something entirely new.
This idea of space coincides with Dean’s clear appreciation for architecture, particularly architecture that blends in with the natural world as much as possible. Stating strong opposition with the Brutalist styles of rigid geometry and concrete, Dean creates worlds in his artwork that blend the natural intricacies and inefficiencies of tree canopies and desert canyons with outlandishly designed structures that compliment the world they are built in rather than defy it. This clearly explains the emphasis of space and sterility in his work. He is not depicting fully fleshed out worlds but blueprints for a dream. It is also this abstract, open space that makes his work complement music so well. The album cover is the entrance to the world and the music then populates it.
Now consider his apparent successor. The point of Cameron’s universe is the exact opposite of Dean’s. Pandora is teeming with loud, colorful, kinetic, 3d-depth friendly life. Even plants burst open with light and color when touched by the fetishized native Na’vi people. There is no room left for the imagination on Pandora; he has filled its universe to the brim and does not demand any thought from the viewer. The depression some fans felt after viewing Avatar, that this mundane reality we inhabit is crushing after viewing something so beautiful and harmonious as Avatar, may be a little absurd and shallow, but there is something to think about when considering the victims' significant lack of imagination. Like a drug made entirely out of visual hyper-stimulation, the Avatar fans now depend on a fix of visual creativity that they cannot compose themselves in their own minds. Your taste or not, I don’t think anyone has felt depressed after listening to Yes or looking at a Dean illustration. He may create bizarre, otherworldly spaces, but he encourages you to join him in the world building. He is a creative means whereas Cameron is a creative end.
Last month, a judge closed the suit against Cameron, citing that the comparisons weren’t enough to form a valid case against the filmmaker. Despite the arguments I just made in praise of Dean’s work compared to Avatar, allow me to now argue against his lawsuit. The problem with Dean’s argument is not that Cameron didn’t steal his work -- he did. The problem is that when your work has been distributed around the world as an indirect product, such as the album art work on millions of copies of records, can you really blame someone for having those fantastic visual ideas pop up in their own work? To make an argument along the lines of Dean’s own beliefs in humans working within nature and not on top of it, his art has been absorbed within the collective unconscious of the pop culture universe. Unfortunately for him, it is primarily through a somewhat anonymous system that has kept his name in very small print on the credit text on the back of the album. Perhaps as design moves further into the forefront of our lives, his name will grow larger and the next time a schlocky science fiction blockbuster comes along, he will get the acknowledgements, and royalties, he rightly deserves.