Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Happy Kirby Day!

It's not a national holiday, but it should be: today would have been Jack Kirby's 90th birthday.

I'd hoped Amazon would cooperate and deliver my Fourth World volume 2 today, but it looks like I'll have to wait a few more days, unfortunately. So I'll have to get today's Kirby fix from Tom Spurgeon's expansive gallery, or that New York Times op-ed from a few days ago.

And for the cinephiles in the crowd, here's an excerpt from Kirby's 2001: A Space Odyssey #2 ("based on concepts from the MGM/Kubrick production"), which I picked up randomly at a flea market in the Adirondacks on our recent vacation. It's Kirby's vision of the dawn of government:

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hands over the City

Hands Over the City was another situation, like Divorce Italian Style, where as soon as I hit "stop" on the VHS screener, I knew what I wanted the cover to be, and I knew who I wanted to do it. First, the what:

After watching the film, I recall being left with the sensation of having watched history unfolding, rather than having watched a narrative. It struck me that this isn't a film about individual people—characters come and go as necessary to move the plot along, but there aren't really "main characters" so much as historical forces that move the plot forward. Certainly, Rod Stieger's Nottola emerges as a primary mover and shaker, but it's not his story, really, it's the story of the city itself. All that boils down to the idea that I didn't want any people on the cover.

I also knew, from our briefing process, that we wanted to find a way to get Rod Steiger on the cover—he's a recognizable face, after all, and this was kind of a lesser-known film. Luckily, there was an easy way around that, since one of the major motifs in the film is Nottola's campaign posters, which allow sort of an end run around my "no people" idea.

The other repeated visual motif in the film is the enormous city planning map in Nottola's office, which is obviously a pretty good way to reference the importance of the city.

Combining those two elements works out to be a pretty simple idea, and easy enough to execute—but also, in the wrong hands, very possibly lifeless and dull. Which was why it was lucky that I simultaneously thought of artist Danijel Zezelj.

A longtime favorite of mine, Danijel's work is incredibly expressive. His work often revolves around architectural elements, textures, stark blacks and whites that evoke iconographic political art, even, occasionally, maps. You couldn't ask for a better candidate for this job.

(By the way, if you're only familiar with Danijel from his American comics work, do yourself a favor and check out the collections of his more personal workSmall Hands might be my favorite, but they're all good.)

So I knew Danijel was perfect for this project, and that was further confirmed when I contacted him and told him about the project, and he told me that he had actually lived in Naples for a while a few years back, and knew it very well. It's always a good sign when you find connections you never knew existed between an illustrator and a project.

I told him what we were looking for, (faithful blog readers might note that on previous art direction posts I've included the original briefs I sent to the illustrators. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find the brief I sent to Danijel anymore, but it basically said all that stuff I say above), and here's what he sent back to us, in what are probably the most fully realized "sketches" I've ever seen:

The first one is almost exactly what we were hoping for, with the caveat that we can't really see Rod Steiger's face, which was kind of the whole point of using the poster in the first place. The second was gorgeous, but producer Abbey Lustgarten felt (and I agreed) that the moped was too central on the cover, considering neither of us could recall any mopeds in the film.

So we went back to Danijel and asked him to find the happy medium between the two. He came back with this:

Which was maybe a little too far from what we were liking about the last round—pulling back so far loses some of the immediacy, I think, and losing the "Votta Nottola" type (which Danijel did because he was worried about it conflicting with the title treatment, which is a valid concern) made the political poster idea less obvious at first glance. So I backpedaled a little bit and explained our concerns to Danijel, and he turned in what became the final cover:

I tried a few title treatments, and we settled on the last of these:

Then at the last minute, we decided to move up the launch date of our then-new branding system, so I retrofitted the cover to include that, and we had ourselves a final cover:

On the cover, I needed someone of Danijel's talent to make an otherwise somewhat pedestrian idea sing. But I also worried that I was confining him too much; wasting the opportunity to work with someone of his talent. So, on the interior packaging, I wanted to be sure to give him as much freedom as possible. I asked for cityscapes, broadly, but left it to him to interpret the film as he saw it. And what he turned in for the interiors was better than I could have hoped:

For all the conceptual reasons discussed above, the cover illustration was still the best cover, (and don't get me wrong, I love that cover), but the piece that wound up on the booklet cover (the first above) is one of my absolute favorite pieces of art we've ever commissioned for Criterion. And at the close of the project, Danijel was kind enough to gift it to me, so it now has a place of honor on my wall of art (I'm not sure you can quite make it out in the photo, but seeing the actual paint strokes used to create the final image is really fascinating):

It was a privilege working with Danijel, and the end result is a package I'm incredibly proud of. Thanks again for taking on this project, Danijel!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Wages of Fear

This one was a long road to the final cover—not inappropriate, given the subject matter. Diving right in...

Because this was the second Criterion edition of Wages of Fear, one of the things to keep in mind was that it had to be noticeably different from the original version:

This wasn't really a problem for me, because I never really felt the image on that cover worked—once you've seen the film, it makes perfect sense, but to the uninitiated I think it looks a little too "Creature from the Black Lagoon." (In fact, I remember being surprised upon finally seeing the film that there wasn't any supernatural horror element.) But that scene of Jo in the pool of spilled oil is a powerful one in the film, so I tried a couple new takes on the same theme:

About that type: I found myself very attached to the crazy title treatment from this otherwise bizarre poster:

(Is he punching the truck? Is he punching so hard the sheer force of his blows creates trucks? Kind of a surreal masterpiece, honestly.) Anyway, the title treatment doesn't really have any particular resonance with the film (to me, anyway), but I just loved it's kooky Anders Nilsen vibe. So it informed the above comps and also a few more, once I'd moved away from the pool of oil idea and toward some comps that focused on the perilous trucking suspense:

Or the toll taken on the main characters by their exhausting struggle:

But since, like I say, the type didn't really feel like the film, it wasn't doing the covers as a whole any favors, despite being awesome. Next, I tried taking the type in a very "pulpy" direction, but it came out very "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."

Then there was this one—the type treatment isn't half bad, and it gives a better idea of the plot and the source of suspense than any of the previous comps. The "EXPLOSIVES" type competes with the title a bit, but it's not too bad. A contender:

But here's my favorite of the bunch:

This one I always really dug, both for the "burdens of atlas" vibe—my back gets tired just looking at that image—and the way the title treatment looks like it's giving him a gut punch, adding injury to injury. The problem was that we'd recently done quite a few covers in similar high-contrast "photocopied" styles, and people were starting to get a little sick of that look. (And admittedly, if you're looking for that style, why assign me when you've got Art Chantry and Aesthetic Apparatus in your Rolodex?) So despite liking this one a lot, I had a feeling it was a non-starter. I did another version with a blue overlay, to allay any concerns about too many black & white covers in a row (which, as you can imagine, happens not infrequently at Criterion):

I got pretty enamored of that light blue pretty early on in the process, and I couldn't exactly tell you why—some dark browns to evoke the color of oil would seem the obvious choice, but would possibly have taken things too far in a "sepia-toned" direction. But I've got no real justification for the blue, other than it just felt right—which is enough, I suppose.

So.... where to go from there? I thought I might be able to pull something together using the iconography of the oil company they worked for in the film (visible in some of the earlier comps above), so I adapted that logo. First, I tried building it into an existing still in place of the original logo, but that didn't really work:

Then I tried laying over straight photography, but it never quite clicked:

There's something to that last one, maybe, but still, nothing to write home about. I tried it without any imagery at all, but it wasn't enough:

And this is certainly misguided:

I tried another tack: if that high contrast "atlas" image from before wouldn't fly, maybe I could remake it with straight photography. It didn't quite work the same way, but it had it's own charms, though the title treatment gets a bit lost:

Finally, I came back around to an earlier idea: that photo of the two men, exhausted and fatalistic, really captured something of the mood of the film, so I combined that with the most straightforward and effective of the earlier type treatments, (I lost the "gut punch" but gained a nifty little tucked in director credit), and wound up here, which became the final cover:

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Back at work!

Vacation's over (it was fantastic), so it's back to the grind for me. I'll try to have a real blog up here soon, but in the meantime, for the Criterion fans in the audience, we've just posted the first looks at the November Criterion titles which have kept me so busy—of the four November releases, I designed two and art-directed a third.

(One of them is probably my favorite design of mine in a while....)

Anyway. Coming soon: actual content!

Friday, August 3, 2007


I'm headed up to the Adirondacks, so I won't be posting anything for at least a week.I'd hoped to get another post up here before I left, but I've been swamped and it was not meant to be. But check back in two weeks and hopefully I'll have something worth the wait ready to post...