Thursday, March 22, 2007

Night and the City/Thieves Highway

This first one was originally posted on the Criterion blog:

When I was designing Night and the City, I wanted to find a slightly different idiom to represent “noir,” to get away from the pulpy, dime-novel look that’s normally associated with that era and style. (Something that illustrator Geoff Grandfield achieved brilliantly with his recent cover for Green for Danger, by the way.) I love that pulpy style on Raymond Chandler novels, but to me, most old film noir posters in that style pale in comparison to how artfully the films themselves are shot.

Since the film takes place in the seedy underbelly of the London Greco-Roman wrestling scene, that suggested plenty of design inspiration. I looked through plenty of vintage wrestling and boxing posters, and spent some time staring at the typography my battered copy of Mike Watt’s “wrestling record,” Ball-hog or Tugboat?. Another influence was the ├╝ber-noir imagery of Frank Miller’s Sin City comics. I wanted to find a way to reproduce that ultra-high contrast look in a photographic context, (this was before the Sin City movie, keep in mind), and the rough letterpress style of printing on those old wrestling posters provided me with my excuse.

My first round of comps basically split into those that said “wrestling” without really saying “noir” (though arguably with a title like that you shouldn’t have to work too hard to get “noir”):

…and those in which the two ideas were competing, rather than working together. Notice how the title is drowned out by all of the poster type, for example:

And then there were these, which I always kinda liked from a graphic perspective, even though they don’t really have much to do with anything:

So, some of the above seemed to have some potential, but none of them were quite there. Back to the drawing board, a little mix and match, and I wound up here:

Which was much closer. Some final tweaks to fix some outstanding problems (i.e. I realized I had just used that same background texture on Il Posto and I Fidanzati), and we arrived at the final cover:

At a certain point it was decided to pair Night and the City with another Dassin noir classic, Thieves’ Highway, so I had to start thinking about the two designs as a matched set. With the aesthetic established by Night and the City, I tried a couple of different entry points to Thieves’ Highway. The seedy underbelly this time out was that of the world of produce distribution. The wrestling poster type seemed to link nicely to the stenciled writing on Mike Figlia’s fruit crates, so I tried highlighting those:

I tried focusing on the truck itself, the setting for so much of the action:

I tried focusing on the romantic relationship:

But nothing quite captured the film. I kept thinking about the tragic ending, those apples strewn across the highway after the truck has careened down the hill. There was no single shot in the film that would translate to print with the right impact, so I had to try to capture the moment another way. I mocked up a quick sketch to test the waters. Everyone seemed cautiously intrigued by the idea, so I borrowed a digital camera and some lighting left over from a recent interview shoot. (Fun fact: we used that same spotlight to film the shadows that play over the Night and the City main menu animation—if I remember correctly, that’s Susan Arosteguy Cat Tyc, and Ian Whelan walking back and forth in our old office atrium.) I bought a basket of apples. (Fun fact #2: the background texture on both of these packages is built from the paper grocery bag those apples came in.) I rolled the apples down the hallway leading from the art department past the audio offices, bumper bowling style, knocking them into each other as much as possible to get a nice chaotic pattern. I snapped a couple pictures, photoshopped them half to death, and incorporated them into the design:

I liked where this was going—I thought it was iconic, yet very specific to the film. It references the most intense scene in the film without really spoiling anything, but hopefully the air of menace and mystery are enough to draw in someone who hasn’t seen the film. I like a design that has those kinds of layers—you read it one way before you know exactly what it’s referencing, and another once you’ve seen the film. It sits nicely next to Night and the City but isn’t dependent on it. I recall it took a little convincing to get everyone to approve what was a relatively high-concept design, but ultimately I think we were all really happy with it.


Anonymous said...

I hope Criterion will be hiring you for many future releases. Your designs are always a pleasure and outstanding. Keep up the good work!

Hammock / Criterion Dungeon

K. Silem Mohammad said...

Just watched both of these (which have immediately entered my list of favorite films ever) for the first time, last week. I remember thinking how much I liked the design of both disks. Great work!