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:

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Designs I Love: Heads of State

The Heads of State are a couple designers based in Philadelphia who do primarily rock&roll design—concert posters and such. They're definitely part of that whole Art Chantry meets Saul Bass school of silkscreen poster design that's so big right now, but to my eye they're some of the most talented designers working in that style. They've got a great ability to create iconic designs that you can't believe no one's ever thought of before—that awesome two-records-become-an-infinity-symbol design being a case in point. (This great book has some behind-the-scenes on that poster—apparently it was inspired by those two albums Bright Eyes put out simultaneously a little while back.)

Visit their website for much more eye candy, and pick up a poster or three while you're there—at only $20, they're a steal at twice the price!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Clean, Shaven

I should preface this one with a spoiler warning: I'll try to be somewhat oblique about it, but if you want to experience Clean, Shaven properly the first time you really ought not to know some of what's below. So, be warned. Still here? Okay.

This project had an unprecedented (for me) level of involvement from the director, Lodge Kerrigan. He invited associate producer Heather Shaw and me to his apartment at the start of the project to look through imagery and discuss design concepts, and by the end of the design process he was sometimes calling me multiple times a day to discuss new ideas and directions. But since he was also open to new ideas on my end, it was a very satisfying collaboration, and I was very glad at the end of it to be confident that we had come up with something that the director felt well represented his vision.

My first instinct was this direction, which quickly became known as the "serial killer" comps:

Lodge and producer Kim Hendrickson were very much against this direction from the beginning, and probably rightly so—it's how the movie had been sold in the past and it's lead to a lot of misinterpretations. Plus, admittedly the ripped picture thing is a little cliché, but I thought maybe I could get away with it since it's inspired by the ripped photo of the baby girl in the film (see the third comp above). In my defense, I think the film does lead the viewer to the more sinister conclusion suggested by these comps, and that the experience of the ending is enhanced when the viewer feels the same culpability as the detective for assuming the worst. (Vague enough?) So my thinking with these covers was to play the same fake-out that the movie itself plays, to maintain the impact of the reversal at the end. But ultimately, everyone felt it would be better to represent what the film actually is about, rather than what you might initially assume the film is about, so these were nixed.

So these next comps were my attempt to represent my experience of the film. The long shots of landscape out the window of Peter's moving car and the innovative sound design were what resonated most with me, so I wanted to try to find a way to suggest the artful style of the film without referencing plot or character. (In trying to find a visual way to represent the unique audio style of the film, I took some inspiration from Dave McKean's work on his and Neil Gaiman's great radio play/graphic novel Signal to Noise—particularly the chapter divisions in the printed version.)

Those went over better than I expected, particularly second one above, which was well-liked enough to live on (in slightly modified form) as the cover to the insert booklet. But no one was quite ready to leave Peter behind so completely, especially since his character is so much the focus of the film. So I tried to bring him back in small ways, without upsetting the compositions too much:

...but I needed to do more to integrate the two concepts if that was going to work. We'll come back to that later.

The other way the film has been presented in the past is as kind of an art house gore film—there's a famous story about some audience members fainting during a film festival showing of one particularly gruesome scene—but that's not a particularly fair representation of the film as a whole. Still, those scenes are there for a reason and they are important to the film, and are probably the most recognizable images, so I threw together a few comps. First a pretty straight-ahead take:

Which didn't work for all the reasons listed above. Next, a few where I tried to mitigate the "gross-out" element to make clear that wasn't all there was to the film. I mixed and matched those images with other visuals that were drawn from my "signal to noise" comps and other striking but somewhat abstract visuals from the film. Here's two of the more successful takes:

(These also fall into the category of what seems to be a nervous design tick for me, the split 'em down the middle comps.)

As I recall, Lodge particularly liked the image of Peter staring intently at his fingernails—if you've seen the film, you know what he's doing there, but the image leaves the "gore" off-camera, and puts the focus on his eyes where it belongs. It never quite worked here, but it comes back in a few comps later on.

I also threw together this very literal take on the title, mostly just to amuse myself:

Then I got back into some comps that focused on Peter and his psychology, which is after all the heart of the film. First there was this unimaginative use of some photoshop "noise" to represent the "noise" in Peter's head:

This next one was maybe a little too minimal, but I very much liked the subtle thing going on with the lines theoretically intended to divide up the space, but the image not quite adhering to those boundaries:

I explored that idea a little more with these next few, eventually bringing back some of the landscape I had liked before:

And, viola! Final cover:

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Rebel Samurai

I originally approached this project with the idea of creating four unrelated but complementary designs. The result was intended to be not a matched set, but four designs that didn’t step on each others toes, or imply inappropriate connections. That is, if these four films are going to be packaged together, we wouldn’t want three of them to be mauve and the other bright yellow, because that would imply there was some relationship between the first three that the last didn’t share. But beyond that, I figured to treat them all as separately as possible. So with that in mind, here’s the kind of thing I was coming up with at the beginning of the design process.

The problem was… well, there were plenty of problems with those. I have no idea why the type on Sword of the Beast seems so Star Wars, for example, and there wasn’t anything in Samurai Rebellion to justify that illustrated look other than the fact that I didn’t have a lot of photography to work with. (Ditto the Art Chantry rip-off version.) In fact, you might notice that every comp here involves just that one photo—it was the only decent shot of Mifune we had. And these are just the ones I’m not too embarrassed to show!

But the main problem was, as I was working on the designs, I was having trouble coming up with a radically different approach for each film—they all seemed to call out for some of the same things. Obviously they were all samurai films, which meant they had similar iconography to begin with, but even beyond that, each raised questions about both the notion of honor and the conventions of swordplay movies as they had been established up to that point, each had unconventional action sequences, each seemed to want varying degrees of a‘60s pop art vibe. The designs wanted to be unified.

So I began to work on comps that had more of a connection. I started off with a sort of a design-neutral direction. Maybe we could imply a connection without making too much of an editorial comment?

But no. Bleh. Too boring for movies this exciting and fun. The next attempt tried to build on some kookier elements, like bright colors and patterns that might subliminally reference ‘60s pop culture.

But that didn’t feel right, either, and it only ever worked for half the films. Samurai Rebellion and Sword of the Beast never clicked in that style. There seemed to be a distinct progression from the more traditional towards this new outlook—maybe that could be a thread to hang the design on?

Building off of an idea I originally had for Kill!—because that was such a great title and so much fun to design around—I came up with some fun, energetic treatments that focused on the type. As the films get more and more “out there,” the type gets more broken up and haphazard in its arrangement. By the time we reach Kill! the lettering has gone crazy, we’ve lost the need for a line to break up the two sections, and our colors are bright orange and yellow. I had to play with the colors a bit before finalizing everything, but basically they worked, and those are the final covers.

Which just left the slipcase cover, which is generally the toughest part of a boxed set—representing all the films without privileging any one in particular. Thankfully, here we had a strong theme with some great samurai visuals

After some last minute back and forth on the set titles—I lobbied pretty hard for Samurai! (with the exclamation point), but was overruled—we arrived here:

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Designs I Love: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

I quite like both of these (hence, "designs I love"), and it's always interesting to see how two different designers tackle the same assignment. So here's a little compare and contrast of two covers for the same book, Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The hardcover (on the top) is by Chip Kidd, the paperback is by John Gall.

Kidd's version depends more on its subtleties—the photo of the clockwork bird, while lovely, wouldn't hold much symbolic weight without the overlay of the mechanical diagram. (It's tough to make out in this jpeg, but if I remember correctly it's actually a spot varnish overlay?) The stripe of black across the bird's eye is fantastic, though—there's something about it that's both organic and weirdly... mystical? I'm not sure that's quite the word I'm looking for. Anyway, the idea of exposing the mysterious inner mechanics of the bird (and, metaphorically, the world) is an appropriate one for this book, and nicely executed. (Plus, you can't tell from the jpeg, but the way the photo wraps all around the jacket is quite nice.)

Gall's version, on the other hand, is much more bold in its metaphors, and, to my eye, captures a little bit more of the off-kilter surrealism of the book. I think it also fits the book a bit better—here's how Murakami first describes the wind-up bird:

"There was a small stand of trees nearby, and from it you could hear the mechanical cry of a bird that sounded as if it were winding a spring. We called it the wind-up bird. Kumiko gave it the name. We didn't know what it was really called or what it looked like, but that didn't bother the wind-up bird. Every day it would come to the stand of trees in our neighborhood and wind the spring of our quiet little world."

Gall's version goes a long way toward suggesting that it's the world itself, rather than a toy bird, that's being wound. And there's just something very compelling about the image itself—the colors, in particular, are beautiful. It's also surprising how much visual interest can be added by something as simple as flipping the image upside down—which can be gratuitous but here is thoroughly justified by the title and content of the book.

It should be noted also that Gall's version is part of his series of Murakami's paperbacks, which are all pretty great. And I love how the central cut-out circle, which seems so intrinsic to the Wind-Up Bird cover, is in fact a consistent element across the series, but used so differently every time. (Chip Kidd is also doing a series of Murakami designs for Vertical right now, but that Wind-Up Bird isn't part of that.)

And here's a fun thing I found when looking for jpegs of these covers: an interesting short interview with John Gall. Here's a relevant bit (but the whole thing is a good read):

F: What sort of pressure, if any, do you feel when approaching covers that other designers have already treated in a past iteration of the book? This becomes especially poignant when you consider that you share hall space with some of the most talented designers working today.

JG: No pressure from that end really. At first it was a little weird having to redesign these wonderful Knopf jackets but now I just look at the existing jacket as a road not to venture down. It makes things easier in a way. There are many, many possible solutions to any given problem and the existing jacket is just one direction not to go in.

Which is a good a note to end on, I think.