Thursday, March 29, 2007

Yi Yi

Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is one of the Criterion projects I’m most proud of. In our initial discussions about the film, producer Curtis Tsui and I both immediately recognized Yang Yang’s penchant for photographing the backs of people’s heads as one of the most potent visual metaphors in the film. (Yang Yang says it’s because he wonders if we only can only see half of the truth, since we can only see in front of ourselves and not behind; he takes photos of the backs of heads to show the other characters the sides of themselves they can't see.) Unfortunately, we didn’t have any high-resolution art from the film that represented that idea. So we decided to try to reproduce it.

We knew we wanted the shot to take place during the wedding scene at the beginning of the film, mostly because that traditional celebratory red in the curtains was such a recognizable and meaningful color. Here’s a low-quality image from the part of the film we were trying to reproduce (the colors are all wrong, but this is the best I could find on the internets while writing this blog):

The actor who played Yang Yang was obviously no longer available, so we had find a back-of-head double. We found a photographer (the talented Andre Constantini), who led us to a young model named Brian, the back of whose head was a fine match for Yang Yang. Brian didn’t own a suit jacket, so we planned to meet at Macy’s, where we’d buy him his “wardrobe.”

I spent the morning browsing fabric stores looking to match the bright red curtains of the wedding scene, and around noon, I made my way over to Macy’s. (Lest anyone is concerned, it was spring break at Brian’s school; we didn’t pull him out of class for this or anything.) Of course, I hadn’t yet met Brian or his mom in person, and only knew Brian from his picture. Let me tell you, I have seldom felt more uncomfortable than that afternoon, standing alone in the Macy’s boys department, scanning the faces of every Asian boy that walked by, enduring the dirty looks from countless mothers—I don’t like to imagine what they might have thought of me. Once Brian and his mom showed up, we quickly bought the jacket and hopped a cab over to Andre’s studio, where Curtis was already waiting.

That was the first photo shoot I’d been involved with, and once we got there, it couldn’t have gone more smoothly. Brian and his mom were friendly and outgoing, and Andre was a real pro. It required a bit of creativity to get the effect we were looking for with only one small bagful of pink balloons—just out of frame on the cover shot, Curtis and I are holding either end of a ribbon with about 8 balloons taped to it. We also tried a series of shots with the balloons floating in mid air, which lead to an extended game of don’t-let-the-balloon-touch-the-ground (Curtis was a champion).

Once we had the photos, all that was left was to play with the typography. I came up with a couple more funky versions, but ultimately the most straightforward composition, (which was somewhat inspired by some Taiwanese wedding invitations that Curtis showed me), felt most like Yi Yi, so that was where we wound up.

The next challenge was to take these newly created designs and make them integrate seamlessly with the rest of the packaging, which was going to be built from film stills.

The main menu animation concept came to me almost the minute we came up with the cover concept: I took frame grabs from the film and isolated out the photographs Yang Yang took/ Which took some doing, actually, since the film never displays the photos quite the straight-ahead way I wanted to display them—some photoshop skewing was necessary to get them straightened out. Then we set them up as, basically, a slide show, like so. (The following is just a low-res animated gif approximation; the actual menu on the DVD was animated more smoothly by Criterion videographics guy Ian Whelan.)

The Polaroid aesthetic is a little different than the rest of the design, but Edward Yang seemed to think the two aesthetics could work together in his film and I think they work in the design, too.

As I got into the rest of them menus, I finally established the look for the rest of the set. Very simple and straightforward, using the typography from the cover and taking advantage of Edward Yang’s beautiful wide-shot cinematography where possible.

I always like to come up with some visual organization within the menus, mostly just to keep in interesting for myself. In this case, the chapter menus represented characters, the commentary menus represented locations, and the other menus were characters in locations, if that makes sense. Here's a sampling:

(That commentary intro page in particular is one of my favorite menus ever; I just love that red.)

That aesthetic got translated into the physical packaging, with a little creative use of those stripes of black and white “though” the pictures, to hide the fact that those images weren’t particularly high resolution and couldn’t actually be blown up as big as I wanted them. Here's a few sample pages:

And that was that! I think the whole thing came together really well, and like I say, I’m still particularly proud of the results, so be gentle in the comments. (But do please do say hi!)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Conquest of Bread

Sometimes my job is less about high-concept and more about just finding the right image. On those occasions, Corbis is a lifesaver. (Here’s hoping posting these comp images doesn’t get me slapped with some huge fee from them!)

If I remember correctly, this book was taking on big agribusiness in California, so I needed something that said “California,” “agriculture” generally (The “bread” in the title is, I believe, mostly metaphorical), with maybe just a hint of Lefty disapproval. These are probably all pretty self-explanatory, but that’s never stopped me yet.

Here’s the first one:

I like that there’s something unhealthy looking about the colors here—I think it might actually just be autumn in the photo, but the fields look practically radioactive. Sounds like big agribusiness to me! The design-y elements here are stolen from—or, *ahem* inspired by, rather—Sean Phillips’ covers for the first run of Sleeper. What does Sleeper have to do with agribusiness? Um, nothing at all, but wasn’t that white border with the type bleeding into it a great look?

This next photo I liked for its vaguely Orwellian organization, and also there’s something of a “thinning hair” effect (to my non-farmer’s eye, anyway) that seems to suggest land that isn’t being treated as it ought to be.

There’s something vaguely sad about this photo, and something about those yellow rain pants takes this out of idyllic family farm territory. Plus, you’ve got to throw in at least one comp highlighting the workers to get your lefty street cred.

The type treatment on those last two was shamelessly stolen from Michael Boland, one of Criterion’s best regular freelance designers. You might recognize similar font sets on projects like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul or Contempt. (Though I think he uses them better than I do here.) I’m pretty glad these comps didn’t get chosen, actually, because this is pretty blatant design plagiarism. Sorry, Michael! Luckily, since they were never printed, I don’t have to lose too much sleep over it.

And this last one should be pretty self-explanatory. They’re Giant! That’s probably due to some unnatural hormones or something, right?

So I sent all those over, and they liked the first one best, but asked for a new type treatment. (Which was fair, considering that type had nothing to do with the book.) Also, by that time they had a better idea of the specs of the actual book, which were a little wider than the comps I’d been making, and of course the subtitle had changed. Incorporating all of those elements, I arrived at the final cover:

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Bad Sleep Well

The Bad Sleep Well was a fun one. Probably the most minimalist set of designs I’ve ever turned in, especially considering I basically put all my eggs in one basket with this one concept that I latched onto pretty early. This is a movie with Toshiro Mifune in it, too, who's about as big a box office draw as we get at Criterion, so I was pretty lucky to be able to convince the higher-ups to let me try a purely graphic treatment, with no picture of Mifune to sell it.

The seed of the design concept was planted within ten minutes of sitting down to watch the film. What sets the plot rolling at the beginning of the film is a cake rolled into a wedding ceremony, in the shape of the office building owned by the father of the bride. There’s a rose stuck into the spot on the cake indicating the window from which one of his employees recently fell to his death, and implicating him in the murder. It’s the equivalent of the play-within-a-play in Hamlet; the Claudius character is called out in a public setting. (Later in the film, there’s also a photo of the building with an “X” marked over the window in question that performs a similar function, if I’m remembering correctly.) The graphic simplicity of just calling out the location of the murder being enough to implicate the murderer is too good to pass up, so I just ran with it.

Here’s my first pass:

The first two were, I thought, some of my more successfully blatant swipes from Reid Miles—I can’t remember if I had True Blue specifically in mind at the time, but it’s obviously at least a subconscious theft. The only problem was that nothing in them said “office building” in the way we wanted them to—the building in question could just as easily have been an apartment building or something. They needed more of an air of “corporate crime.”

The next one is a little less “‘50s,” but more “corporate,” which is a big part of what makes it work. It’s also taken a little more directly (though not exactly) from the shape of the building in the film—the air vents (or whatever they are) on top of the building should be recognizable to anyone who knows the film well.

There was some back and forth on how faithful we needed to be to the film—I think the building in the film only has around seven stories total, and my design seemed to be a much taller building. Ultimately, we chalked that up to artistic license. We spent a good two hours researching the vintage of those label maker machines—when were they invented, would they have existed in Japan at the time the film is set, etc. (I think it turned out they were created a few years prior to the film’s release, but probably wouldn’t have been in common usage yet.) That proved to be a bigger sticking point, so I tried a couple other type options.

We had also just produced a bunch of black-white-and-red covers in a row, so I tried a couple versions with greys instead of blacks, or switching the colors around.

But it was much stronger in the original color scheme—the red “x” popped much better against the higher contrast setting. And everyone (not suprisingly) dug the biggest, boldest title treatment, so that’s where we wound up at the end of the day.

Night and the City/Thieves Highway

This first one was originally posted on the Criterion blog:

When I was designing Night and the City, I wanted to find a slightly different idiom to represent “noir,” to get away from the pulpy, dime-novel look that’s normally associated with that era and style. (Something that illustrator Geoff Grandfield achieved brilliantly with his recent cover for Green for Danger, by the way.) I love that pulpy style on Raymond Chandler novels, but to me, most old film noir posters in that style pale in comparison to how artfully the films themselves are shot.

Since the film takes place in the seedy underbelly of the London Greco-Roman wrestling scene, that suggested plenty of design inspiration. I looked through plenty of vintage wrestling and boxing posters, and spent some time staring at the typography my battered copy of Mike Watt’s “wrestling record,” Ball-hog or Tugboat?. Another influence was the ├╝ber-noir imagery of Frank Miller’s Sin City comics. I wanted to find a way to reproduce that ultra-high contrast look in a photographic context, (this was before the Sin City movie, keep in mind), and the rough letterpress style of printing on those old wrestling posters provided me with my excuse.

My first round of comps basically split into those that said “wrestling” without really saying “noir” (though arguably with a title like that you shouldn’t have to work too hard to get “noir”):

…and those in which the two ideas were competing, rather than working together. Notice how the title is drowned out by all of the poster type, for example:

And then there were these, which I always kinda liked from a graphic perspective, even though they don’t really have much to do with anything:

So, some of the above seemed to have some potential, but none of them were quite there. Back to the drawing board, a little mix and match, and I wound up here:

Which was much closer. Some final tweaks to fix some outstanding problems (i.e. I realized I had just used that same background texture on Il Posto and I Fidanzati), and we arrived at the final cover:

At a certain point it was decided to pair Night and the City with another Dassin noir classic, Thieves’ Highway, so I had to start thinking about the two designs as a matched set. With the aesthetic established by Night and the City, I tried a couple of different entry points to Thieves’ Highway. The seedy underbelly this time out was that of the world of produce distribution. The wrestling poster type seemed to link nicely to the stenciled writing on Mike Figlia’s fruit crates, so I tried highlighting those:

I tried focusing on the truck itself, the setting for so much of the action:

I tried focusing on the romantic relationship:

But nothing quite captured the film. I kept thinking about the tragic ending, those apples strewn across the highway after the truck has careened down the hill. There was no single shot in the film that would translate to print with the right impact, so I had to try to capture the moment another way. I mocked up a quick sketch to test the waters. Everyone seemed cautiously intrigued by the idea, so I borrowed a digital camera and some lighting left over from a recent interview shoot. (Fun fact: we used that same spotlight to film the shadows that play over the Night and the City main menu animation—if I remember correctly, that’s Susan Arosteguy Cat Tyc, and Ian Whelan walking back and forth in our old office atrium.) I bought a basket of apples. (Fun fact #2: the background texture on both of these packages is built from the paper grocery bag those apples came in.) I rolled the apples down the hallway leading from the art department past the audio offices, bumper bowling style, knocking them into each other as much as possible to get a nice chaotic pattern. I snapped a couple pictures, photoshopped them half to death, and incorporated them into the design:

I liked where this was going—I thought it was iconic, yet very specific to the film. It references the most intense scene in the film without really spoiling anything, but hopefully the air of menace and mystery are enough to draw in someone who hasn’t seen the film. I like a design that has those kinds of layers—you read it one way before you know exactly what it’s referencing, and another once you’ve seen the film. It sits nicely next to Night and the City but isn’t dependent on it. I recall it took a little convincing to get everyone to approve what was a relatively high-concept design, but ultimately I think we were all really happy with it.

Friday, March 9, 2007


Good design should speak for itself. Like a joke, if you have to explain why it works, then it probably doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s can’t be interesting to see how things come together.

I love process stories. There’s just something really fun about getting to peek behind the curtain and see the rejected sketches and paths not taken. I’m not arrogant enough to suggest that anyone’s been crying out for this or that I have anything to teach the world, but hopefully someone will at least get a kick out of seeing some of the tangents on the way to the finished product. Plus, every designer must have a file of rejected comps they always thought were better than whatever eventually got printed, and I’m no exception, so this is my chance to prove all those editors, producers and art directors wrong! (Or, more likely, come to terms with the fact that they were right all along.)

So if you find any of this even a little bit interesting, say hi in the comments! I’d love to know if anyone’s reading this thing!