Monday, April 16, 2007

Divorce, Italian Style

So my friend India recently asked on her blog, just what it is, exactly, that an art director does. So I thought I'd post about my first experience art directing an illustrator. (I'd art directed designers before this, but this was the first time I'd commissioned any illustrations.)

A running theme in Pietro Germi's Divorce, Italian Style is a series of outlandish sequences in which Marcello Mastroianni fantasizes about various ways he could kill his wife. They're definitely the most memorable part of the film for me, and I immediately thought it would be great to somehow get a selection of those on the cover. I wasn't sure how to represent them until, as has so often been the case, a bad pun unlocked the key to the design.

One of the most ridiculous fantasies is the scene in which he locks her into a rocket and shoots her off into space. I remember thinking something along the lines of "now that's what I call Love and Rockets." It's not a very good joke, but it led to a very good idea. Namely, it led me to consider the idea of contacting Xaime Hernandez, one of the geniuses behind the seminal comics series Love and Rockets, along with his brother Gilbert (who is also an amazing artist and storyteller.) Xaime's linework has a 60's-ish cool that completely fit the vibe of the film, a sense of humor, and an ability to present the fantasy murders in a light-hearted way without trivializing the film. I just had to convince everyone else that it was the way to go—hiring illustrators was almost unheard of for Criterion at that time—and hope that Xaime would be available.

Unlike when I'm doing a design myself, when hiring an illustrator I like to get everyone onboard with the basic concept before sketching even begins. I got the idea approved on the Criterion side by mocking it up using some sketches by Xaime that I found online. I don't have that file any more, sadly, but it was basically the shapes from the final cover with drawings of Maggie and Hopey instead of the characters from the film. I forget exactly how the type was set up on that first version, but I know the word "Divorce" was basically as it appeared on the final cover, since I adapted that from the original Italian posters and ad campaigns (This is the best example of it that I can find online right now):

With the concept approved, I sent an email to Xaime. Like I said, this was my first time working with an illustrator, and I certainly wasn't starting small: there are few artists working in any medium that I admire more than Xaime Hernandez, so I was incredibly nervous about contacting him. Luckily, he was available and interested in the project, and he agreed to do it. I put together a package for him with the mock-up I'd made, some sample Criterion DVDs to give him a sense of how all the elements would fit together, and the following note (edited here for space):

I've attached a jpg of the rough sketch I did last week in order to get this concept approved by the higher-ups here. (I hope you don't mind that I swiped some drawings of yours off the internet for the occasion.) As you can see, it boils down to 10 little 1.5" x 1.5" drawings. The typography and colors, etc, aren't at all final, (although I do like the "Divorce" letters), but this is the basic idea I have in mind--the images in the squares would be the husband's murder fantasies, and the image in the "O" would be of Marcello Mastroianni (the husband), wearing the deadpan-cool but ready-to-explode expression he wears for most of the film.

As far as what would specifically be going on in the drawings, there are a couple of particularly memorable murder fantasies that we should probably try to include among the squares--drowning her in quicksand, shooting her off in a rocket, pushing her into a boiling cauldron--but there's room to improvise a bit, too.

Getting recognizable likenesses of the characters will be important, but I think they should both be easily caricature-able: he's got this raised-eyebrows/slicked-back hair/cigarette drooping out of his mouth thing going on, and she's got a hint of a mustache and these really intense eyebrows that are very recognizable. i've included a bunch of images of them, and a VHS copy of the film. Give me a call once you've had a chance to watch it and we can talk further.

Xaime got the concept immediately, and because the actual content of the drawings was left pretty much up to him, I think he got to have some fun with it. A little while later, he faxed over his first sketches, and I don't think I've ever been so excited to see a fax come in. There were pencil versions of all the drawings that made it into the final cover, plus a couple more.

Unsurprisingly, he knocked them out of the park on the first try. (Which worked out well, because I certainly wouldn't have had the stones to try to tell Xaime Hernandez how to draw!) We picked our favorites and asked Xaime to ink them up. Then I fit the drawings into the template, and we had a final cover:

Since that project I've been honing my "art-directing style"—I'm less likely to have a completed idea in hand before contacting an illustrator and more likely to try to work things through at the sketching stage. But for a first time out, this couldn't have gone more smoothly. This is probably still my favorite cover of all those I've ever been involved with.

Thanks again, Xaime, for making me look so good.


Anonymous said...

So. Cool.

Ed Howard said...

Nice. Bringing in Xaime and Mike Allred to do Criterion covers was a brilliant idea. Two of the best comics artists working in the medium.

Been really enjoying reading this blog.

Anonymous said...

Great cover!
I'm supposed to get Overlord to review for a site.
I'm a writer-producer of promos for HBO. Do you know if Criterion ever looks for additional producers to to work on their DVD extras, featurettes, etc? I'm crazy about Criterion and it might be one of the few places I'd ever leave HBO for.
Take care,

Andrea said...

So great to get the behind-the-scenes on this one. Thanks!