Wednesday, July 18, 2007

An Angel at My Table

An Angel at My Table is a film about writing, more specifically about the writer Janet Frame. It's also about the beautiful New Zealand landscape and a painfully introverted girl learning to experience the world around her. Unfortunately for such a beautiful, colorful film, we had almost no color photography from the film. Apparently they hadn't really taken any color photographs on set (or if they had, we couldn't find them), so the closest we had were some crudely colorized black and white stills. Since one thing we really hate to do at Criterion is represent a color film with black and white art (unless there's a good reason for it), I was limited in my options.

One of the ideas I had kicking around in my head seemed at first like a good solution—I had this notion of Janet Frame constructing a world around herself via her writing, so I thought using an obviously "fake" style to recreate "real" scenes from the film could be an interesting way to turn a limitation into a strength. If I'm not mixing up my chronologies here, I seem to recall the cool layered effect of the Shins' Chutes Too Narrow cover being an inspiration in this direction. Here's my first attempt:

This composition is meant to evoke the moment in the film when Janet returns to New Zealand after some time abroad, and the super-saturated color goes a long way toward capturing that vibe, in my opinion. I also liked the way flattening the colors emphasized the iconic quality of her bright orange sphere of hair. And I thought the rolling hills were kind of a nice effect.

I also liked the idea of incorporating some of Janet's writing, especially in manuscript form. The text on the following comps is the last page of the last volume of her autobiography, The Envoy from Mirror City, (I'm pretty sure), recreated from the final scene of the film which shows her typing it, complete with the corrections and typos shown in the film:

Ultimately, it was decided that the whole "created world" metaphor just didn't hold water. I suppose I can see the argument—that these are somehow about Janet Frame but not really about Jane Campion's film about Janet Frame, if that makes sense—but I do still like them.

Alas, it was not to be. The first one was completely unreproduceable, but I tried to rebuild the second more organically from framegrabs and such, but that only highlighted the "Lifetime Movie of the Week" elements that were already lurking in there to begin with:

I had the idea that if I could find wallpaper and siding to match that shown in Janet's childhood home, I could shoot a new photograph to make this next composition work, but I never found anything remotely close. The wood and wallpaper in this comp aren't even close. There's something pleasing about the configuration, but this sloppy stock image conflagration was all I was ever able to cobble together, so nothing came of it.

I then tried a couple variations on the earlier idea using high-def framegrabs. Now, to get any image quality out of high-def framegrabs, you can't really run them much larger than half a page. Since I was trying for a feeling of openness, I didn't really want to divide up the cover with arbitrary divisions, so I tried a couple comps where I felt I could fake the upper half of the image:

The first one also takes the "writing" concept from previous comps and turns it into something a little more abstract—the idea of writing, rather than an actual sample of her writing. This solved the problem of making it recognizably a "cover" (as opposed to an editorial spread), but maybe removed an interesting layer of meaning.

I then tried a whole new tack, taking my inspiration from the scene in the film when Janet, on the train to her new school, tries out in her notebook many different possible signatures, constructing a new identity for herself. I tried to reproduce her shaky handwriting to the best of my ability.

That was a serious contender for a while, actually, and eventually got used as the cover to the insert booklet. But finally, we fell back on the image that had often been used to promote the film in the past, which I had been reluctant to use because I didn't like the way the image had been colorized. But it's a great image, and it represents the film well, so after a little tweaking of the color, I got comfortable with it, and we had ourselves an approved cover:


josh said...

I really dig the first concept. The way her hair functions as a natural nimbus and links with the type is great. The matted collage look also has tinges of baroque/early renaissance work without feeling too religious. Great textures too.

Aaron said...

The signature version really appeals to me, too bad that one didn't stick.

Trash said...

Bookemarked your blog. No time to read now, but looks interesting. Nice ! : )

MacGuffin said...

I purchased John Foster's book New Masters of Poster Design on your advice and all I can say is..WOW!!! Gorgeous book, I esp love the dustjacket. I have well over a dozen books on film posters but this is the first on general poster design. Thanks for recommending it!

Eric Skillman said...

That's probably the first time anything of mine's been accused of looking "early renaissance," but I appreciate the compliment--thanks!

At least that one didn't get totally wasted; it's the cover of the insert booklet inside the package.

Yeah, that book is great. I haven't actually gotten my own copy yet, (though it's definitely on my list!) but I've logged quite a few hours with the copy floating around the Criterion office. Glad you liked it!