Thursday, November 19, 2009

Twenty Questions

MUCH too busy to put a proper post together, but here's something I can get up without too much trouble. A little while back I got an email from one Adam Rux, student of graphic design at the University of Missouri, who wanted to ask me twenty questions about working at Criterion. Considering some of the questions I get asked in the comments here, I thought the answers might also be of interest to readers of this blog, so here's a transcript of our email Q&A. Hopefully this'll tide you all over until I can find the time for another proper design post.

1. How long have you worked at Criterion Collection?
Since early '02, so... almost 8 years? (Huh... hard to believe.)

2. What was your first position at the company, and what did your job entail?
I was "Art Department Manager," meaning I did most of the production work to make sure all of our files were print-ready, plus a few minor design projects, like promotional "sell sheets" for all new titles. Our sell-sheets are templated now, but back then each one was individually designed to reflect the look of that particular disc. On occasions when we didn't have an approved cover by the time sell sheets had to ship, I would have to create a fake cover for the sell sheet, and basically I tried to make them as good real covers... with varying degrees of success, of course. But I guess they were alright, since after a few months of those, I was given the opportunity to design a real title (Akira Kurosawa's Red Beard was my first), and from then on I've been doing primarily that.

3. Briefly describe your educational background.
I have a BA from NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. The school didn't have majors, exactly, but I basically studied comparative literature.

4. How important has your formal education been to your development as a designer?
I didn't really study design, I learned that more from tangential sources—designing the school literary magazine, interning for magazines, artists, and designers—more like a series of apprenticeships than a formal design education. That said, I actually do think the analytical "literary" skills I learned in school helped to focus the specific kind of design I do, what I like to think of as "interpretive" design (as opposed to [equally valid] "decorative" design).

5. Do you think you could have landed at Criterion today without a university degree?
Huh... That's tough to say. I guess not, but I don't know that I'd draw the link particularly directly. (i.e. it's not that the degree was so important, it's more that through college I had some experiences which lead to some internships which lead to this which lead to that which lead to Criterion... does that make sense?)

6. What was your first portfolio like?
A PDF of rejected book cover designs and some copies of the NYU literary magazine. Nothing that I'd want to show anyone now, I'm sure!

7. What was your first design job after university?
Well... Criterion, really, although I'd been working for designer Stewart Cauley for a couple years during college, which continued for a few months after I finished classes in December of '01, though I was working at Criterion by the time I technically graduated in the spring of '02.

8. What, if anything, about that position helped you land at Criterion?
Stewart gave me my first glimpse of design as a full time job, and helped me to understand exactly what that job would entail, not to mention taught me quite a lot.

9. Before Criterion, where else have you worked?
With Stewart, and simultaneously as a production intern at BOMB magazine, and also I've done some freelance work since coming to work here. (And of course I spent plenty of time paying bills at various coffee shops, delis, grocery stores, etc.)

10. Specifically, what experiences made you a desirable candidate for Criterion?
Like I say, the job I was originally hired to do wasn't intended to involve much design, so really the relevant experience was a proficiency with getting files set up to print properly (something I did at BOMB and somewhat for Stewart as well). Then once I got to Criterion I kind of carved out a niche for myself as a designer, too.

11. Describe the art department at Criterion. Your blog is very insightful, but could you describe in more depth the critiquing process?
For my own designs, I usually email them around to all the relevant parties (the disc's producer(s), the art director, and our president, Peter Becker), then there's usually at least one meeting in which we all stand in front of the magnetic wall-of-comps in the art department and discuss all the designs (since I work in-house, I have the advantage of participating directly in those conversations; our out-of-house designers have the results of those meetings communicated to them). Then there may be further rounds of comps sent through email or discussed in person, as needed. It's relatively casual, and varies depending on the project.

12. From conception to design finalization, how long is spent on each package?
Generally around two to three months, though there have certainly been projects that have taken longer.

13. How much autonomy do you have at Criterion?
I have plenty of autonomy in submitting designs, and in advocating for them... of course, whether or not those designs ultimately get chosen is another matter.

14. Is the art department self-contained, or is there a lot of interaction with the rest of the company? What is corporate life like at Criterion?
Lots of interaction; obviously we work more directly with editorial and the producers than with audio or video restoration, but everyone here is pretty sociable.

15. The films obviously dictate the style of the packaging. To what extent do you exert your own personality? How evident is the hand of Eric Skillman in the final release?
I suppose it varies from project to project—Berlin Alexanderplatz has a LOT of me in it, for example, as does most anything with a handmade component (what I call the "arts and crafts" projects), where something like Stranger Than Paradise (which I do think is a fine cover) is more of a direct channelling of the aesthetic of the film, without me adding much to it.

16. What percentage of Criterion packages are designed in-house?
Well, they're all at least art-directed in-house, but as far as actually designed, between me and Sarah Habibi, I'd say approx. 1/4, or maybe a little less?

17. How does Criterion decide which releases are designed in-house and which warrant an outside sensibility?
Generally it's just about the sensibility of the particular designer (in-house or out-) meshing well with the project. Occasionally there's some logistical reason to keep it in-house—it needs to be finished in super-quick time, or if we foresee an above-average amount of involvement from a director or licensor. And sometimes I just get a look at the upcoming schedule and call dibs. (Though admittedly that doesn't always work.)

18. Do you have any input into what films are released by Criterion? How far in advance is the release schedule planned?
None whatsoever.

19. Which Criterion package are you least satisfied with, and why?
Hmmm, I should be careful how I answer this... I guess Night on Earth, maybe? I was working against some constraints on that one, but even so I wasn't really able to step up and make it hold together. Definitely a little disappointed in myself on that one, since I do quite like that movie.

20. Which package makes you envious of the designer?
Good question! There's plenty that I love and wish I had come up with, like Michael Boland's La Commare Secca, Lucian Yang's Floating Weeds, Aesthetic Apparatus's Eyes Without a Face, Ron Miller's Golden Age of Television, or Jason Hardy's Brand Upon the Brain, to rattle off the first few that come to mind. But if I had to pick one design that I never would have come up with in a million years but wish I could, I'd probably point to Neil Kellerhouse's great design for Mishima.

21. If Criterion asked you to choose three films to design, what would you choose?
Another interesting question! Honestly, I tend to like designing for films I'd never seen before getting the assignment, because the films I know and love are already kind of set in my mind, it's harder to find a new angle to approach them from. That said, I'd love to get my hands on Duck Soup, or any Marx Brothers title, really, because I don't know that I've ever seen any really great design associated with the Marx Brothers, and they definitely deserve it... I'd also love to try one of those big, outlandish multi-season TV sets, for something like The Wire or Deadwood. Then, I dunno... Point Blank? In Bruges? The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence? Superman: the Movie? Groundhog Day? His Girl Friday? Kiss Kiss Bang Bang? Now I'm just naming my favorite movies...

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