Monday, May 7, 2007

Three War Films by Andrej Wajda

NOTE: It's come to my attention that some people are having trouble viewing the animated gifs in this post—if you can't see the pictures flashing, try clicking the images to open them in a new window.

The Wajda box was kind of a backwards project. Normally with projects like this, we work on the cover first. We get that just the way we want it, and use the look established there to dictate how to ripple out the rest of the packaging. But on this project, we did the opposite. For reasons not worth getting into here, the rest of the design had to be completed before the covers. So I had to build a design that was open enough to work with a cover that didn't yet exist, but still dynamic and interesting, since these are very emotional, dramatic films.

For the menus I decided that, contrary to how I normally design box sets, each film would have its own design scheme that connected to the other two films only through a matching font set (FF Scala, if you're curious), and color scheme. I've been down on the black-white-and-red color scheme in the past, and it is a little over-used, but it was really the only scheme that made sense for these. Every historical entity that had any resonance with these films is represented by those colors: Nazis, red and black. Soviets, red. Poland, red and white. It just made too much sense to ignore.

(Completely arbitrary digression: Anyone ever notice how the enemies in most of the major conflicts in American history has been associated with the color red? The Communists in the Cold War, the Nazis and the Japanese in WWII, even the British, who I wouldn't normally associate with red particularly, were the "redcoats" during the Revolutionary War. Kinda puts a whole new spin on the red state/blue state divide, huh? But I digress...)

For A Generation, I'll admit I never had a particularly great high concept--it's basically just full frame images with straightforward type centered overtop. I could try to justify it by saying that A Generation was Wajda's first film and as such is a little more of a blunt instrument than the other films, without the subtlety of his later work, but honestly I just liked the imagery I had and figured I could get away with just showing it full screen.

For Kanal I built the menus around a two-tiered idea that was meant to suggest the above ground/underground dynamic of the film.

For Ashes and Diamonds, I got a little more specific to the film. There's a scene towards the end of the film when one of the characters (I won't say who to avoid spoiling it) is fleeing for his life. He stumbles through a yard in which someone's laundry--a field of sheets--is being hung out to dry. It's a particularly memorable and beautiful sequence, one that evokes much of the tragedy of the film, so I decided to use that my entry point. I built the menus around loose drawings of sheets, with images from the film poking out from behind and the menu text laying on top of the white sheets.

Then came the covers, and since the menus and the packaging were half-finished, the covers pretty much had to be built to match the insides. I wasn't having much luck with purely photographic treatments (and I didn't even save any of the photo-based comps, so they must have been pretty bad), so I began leaning towards doing something a little more graphic with these covers. I started off with a high-contrast look reminiscent of the Night and the City style, but we'd done that look before, and anyway, something about these films seemed to want a rougher, more handmade look.

So I developed a faux-handmade style for the covers. I say "faux"-handmade because it was all done in photoshop--unfortunately years of desk-jockeying have atrophied any actual drawing muscles I might have once had. The method I used for these is, as far as I know, unique to me. And rightly so, because it is both needlessly labor-intensive and absolutely backward. It worked like this: since I didn't have anything like a tablet pen at the time, I drew a thick black line with my mouse, then erased around the sides of the line until I reached something approaching a contour line. I thought of it not unlike chiseling out the negative space around a line to make a woodcut, only digital, and sloppier. Here's a quick animated gif to demonstrate how any particular line might be made:

There's no particular reason the results should look like anything other than a train wreck, but there's something about them that kinda works... or at least, I like to think so.

For A Generation, I found a particular framegrab from the film that I wanted to represent, so it was a simple matter of tracing directly over the image. As demonstrated in this animated gif:

For Kanal, I used the same basic technique, but the image itself was something of a collage of different elements; the barbed wires and the hand and the grenade all came from different moments in that same scene. I composited them, did my little tracing thing, and had the cover. It was pretty important that the grenade on the cover be that particular kind of German WWII grenade, but when I drew it, it came out looking more like a microphone than a grenade. (I remember thinking if I couldn't get it approved for this cover, I should save it and try to use it for 8 Mile 2: Grab the Mike or something.) So I found some reference online for the that kind of grenade and found the German equivalent of "front towards enemy" was written on them, so incorporating that text helped clarify the image. Here's another animation to demonstate:

For the last film (Ashes and Diamonds), I was having trouble coming up with anything that really captured the flavor of the film. I originally tried representing an old German poster that we've got hanging up in the Criterion offices, in the style I'd used for the other two covers. So this:

became this:

Except no one was really crazy about it in the new style. I personally was really proud of that drawing of the gun, but overall it's a little flat, and definitely not an improvement on the original. So I tried a couple other compositions that just didn't work at all; here's the only one I'm not completely embarrassed to show (you can just imagine how bad the others were):

I eventually realized there wasn't quite any image that really did what I wanted it to. I thought about what it was that really stood out in my memory about Ashes and Diamonds, especially contrasted with the other two films, and found it was really the somewhat incongruous sense of cool in the midst of tragedy we get from Maciek, that James Dean, sunglasses-at-night thing he's got going on. So I tried just a straight-up portrait, not traced from any particular picture, and came up with this:

Check out that Kirby-tastic chin squiggle! Frankly, I'm still a little surprised this got approved, but I guess there's something appealing amateurish about it. I still liked the gun from the first version enough that I used it for the booklet cover.

All that left was the slipcase cover, which is the biggest challenge in any multiple film box set. You have to avoid favoring any one film over the others, which tends to eliminate photos right away. For Criterion box sets, the theme that connects the film is seldom as simple as "the Connery Bond movies," where you can easily stick Sean Connery on the front and bam, you're done. No, for Criterion box sets the connection is usually the director (and a picture of the director is never a good way to sell a film), and/or something abstract and thematic, i.e. "life as theatre," or "the absence of God in modern life." Which on the one hand makes it harder to conceptualize slipcase covers, and on the other makes successfully executing them that much more satisfying.

For this box, the connecting thread was obviously "war"--the Second World War, in particular, and the history of Poland during that period. The bittersweet "victory" in which they were freed from Nazi control only to be yolked by the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.

My mind wandered back to the clothesline scene in Ashes and Diamonds. There's a moment when the character is concealed behind a sheet on a line, and he's bleeding out onto the sheet. So the sheet becomes half soaked in blood, i.e. half-red, half-white, like the Polish flag. I can't remember if that idea was put into my head by some article I read, or by producer Iza Muchlinski, or if I came up with it myself, but wherever it came from, it stuck with me. It seemed to hit the major themes: the violence of war, the birth of the new Polish national identity, etc. Okay, yes, the image technically related to one film more than the other two, but it was still abstract enough to stand for all three. And luckily, in this particular box, Ashes and Diamonds was clearly the marquee film of the set, so if we were going to highlight one film more than the others, that was the one to call out.

The drawing on the slipcase cover wound up veering in something of a Saul Bass direction, only sloppier. I go back and forth on whether it's successful or not. I know I like it more as a 3-dimensional object than I do onscreen. I recall there was quite a bit of back and forth over exactly where the title should go; here's a couple options:

We finally settled on keeping the type away from the drawing as much as possible. So, all together, here's the final covers for all four pieces:


MacGuffin said...

Firstly, I'd like to say Criterion has the very best graphic design/art department of any dvd house. Secondly, thank you for showing the evolution/progression in the design process. It's quite fascinating.

India said...

I love the results of your tabletless drawing technique. I will be stealing that method immediately.

clydefro said...

I'm very grateful for the insight you keep providing into the Criterion design process. It really is fascinating and well-written, especially for those of us who linger on Criterion's every move.

I wanted to specifically mention how much I've always liked the cover art on the entire Wajda set. I was unfamiliar with the films when they were announced, but impressed by the art enough to learn more and purchase the set. I'm sure I wasn't the only one with this superficial approach and I'm very glad I took the chance on them. So, thanks for repeatedly causing me to take notice of many great films.

The covers you've been writing about are some of the best in the collection, in my opinion, and a breath of fresh air from other companies. Simple black and white stills are nice, but, when used repeatedly, less interesting than things like the Wajda set or the Dassin covers.