Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Senso was absolutely a group effort: I worked with illustrator Glen Orbik and Criterion Art Director Sarah Habibi worked with designer F. Ron Miller to get to the final result. And I have to say, I'm really really happy with how everything came together! This post will be primarily about the cover, so let me start by sharing the text of the note I first sent to Glen Orbik:

[...] So here’s what we’re thinking: Visconti said that he wanted to show in this film the “melodrama of life”, to show that big operatic melodrama can be powerful and meaningful. So all of the emotions of the film are deliberately heightened and exaggerated, but in a deadly serious way. So we want the cover to have that same feeling of heightened emotion, without straying into tongue-in-cheek self-parody. We thought your style, so influenced by the great mid-century illustrators, would be perfect for this.

We’ve had one fairly specific idea that we think you could execute really well. Taking inspiration from the costuming of the film, with his white uniform with the cape, and her progression of black dresses, I had the idea of something very graphic, where the black and white areas are reduced to simple shapes but all the other details are rendered very painterly and realistically. Something like this kind of thing:

That’s an old Mike Ludlow illustration from (I think) the Saturday Evening Post, but hopefully it makes clear the kind of thing I’m thinking of. So imagine a black background, her in the foreground in her black dress, him behind her in his white uniform, so the shape of him helps to outline the shape of her. This has the added advantage of showing the lovers together but not in a traditional embrace; ideally they’d even be looking away from each other.

The final piece of the puzzle, I think, ought to be the red, quite, and green leaflets dropped on the opera in the very first scene of the film, fluttering in the blackness around them, both to add some splashes of color, and to suggest the political undertones of the film (Italian flag colors, etc). Here’s a very quick and dirty photoshop mock-up of the kind of thing I’m thinking of:

The poses here aren’t ideal--the image of her is actually kind of alright, I think, in the kind of emotion it expresses, but his pose is a bit stilted and nothing special… plus the leaflets obviously look horribly silly in this sketch, but I have faith that they could be striking and beautiful when rendered as part of a painting. But hopefully it reads as proof-of-concept, at least? (And just to be doubly-clear, I’m not suggesting black & white imagery, that was just easier to throw together.)

It’s also worth mentioning that we’ll probably want a decent amount of space at the top (more than in my crappy photoshop sketch, even), for title, director name, etc. Just something to keep in mind.

I should say that this is a lot more specific instruction than I normally like to give to an artist, but the nature of this film just lead us to this idea, and I thought you’d be the man to execute it. If you have any other ideas after watching the film, we’re more than happy to have you sketch those out, as well, but this is the idea that was most exciting to us in the abstract, so we definitely want to see some variation on this sketched out.

(I should take a moment here to credit Sean Phillips with introducing me to the work of Mike Phillips, as seen above. For Sean's own take on a mid-century illustration style, check out Sweet Smell of Success.)

So, working from that incredibly specific brief, Glen sent the following sketches:

Glen also sent along these references for the faces, and a period reference for her pose, to help clarify the sketch.

Glen's new ideas were excellent, too, but at the end of the day the second one was too focused on the bedroom (we wouldn't want to give anyone the impression that this is Dangerous Liaisons or something), and the third made her into a bit too much of an ingenue, when really she's kind of swept up in things, not ultimately in much control at all…

So we were still rolling with the original idea, but we thought her pose wasn't quite right… a bit too heroic. And the wind-swept leaflets were a bit overdramatic, even for this film. So we asked for a revised sketch, and got this (with the understanding that the leaflets would change from sketch to execution):

Closer, but not quite enough of a departure. We asked for another take, and also asked to maybe try the figures higher up in the frame, to accommodate a bottom-of-the-page title treatment. Glen sent the following, with and without the leaflets. Again, reference for her face follows:

We approved the last of those and were off to the races! Glen quickly turned around the final painting, which was absolutely stunning!

…and here's the final, composed cover with type by Ron Miller:

EDITED TO ADD: The story continues over at F. Ron Miller's "Flog."

1 comment:

Jordan Gray said...

This and the Three Reasons have me excited for this one. Anything with Alida Valli (Miss Tanner!) is a win.